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Unlocking anti-cancer compounds in thyme and oregano

Although plants such as thyme and oregano are known to possess an anti-cancer compound that can suppress tumor development, the amount that can be found in these plants is not sufficient to cure disease. A team of researchers led by Purdue University argue that the key to unlocking the therapeutic potential of these plants is amplifying the amount of the compound they create, or synthesizing the compound in the laboratory.

“These plants contain important compounds, but the amount is very low and extraction won’t be enough,” said study co-leader Natalia Dudareva, a distinguished professor of Biochemistry at Purdue University. “By understanding how these compounds are formed, we open a path to engineering plants with higher levels of them or to synthesizing the compounds in microorganisms for medical use.”

Thymol, carvacrol, and thymohydroquinone are flavor compounds in thyme, oregano, and other herbs from the Lamiaceae family that have anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties that are highly beneficial for human health. Among these, thymohydroquinone has been found to have significant anti-cancer properties.

Together with colleagues from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and Michigan State University in the US, Professor Dudareva uncovered the biosynthetic pathway to the formation of thymohydroquinone. By using RNA sequencing and correlation analysis, the scientists screened over 80,000 genes from plant tissue samples and identified those necessary for the formation of this extraordinary compound. 

“These findings provide new targets for engineering high-value compounds in plants and other organisms,” said study co-first author Pan Liao, a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Dudareva’s lab at Purdue University. “Not only do many plants contain medicinal properties, but the compounds within them are used as food additives and for perfumes, cosmetics and other products.”

According to Professor Dudareva, the results of this study could be applied to understand the biochemical composition of other plant species, and to assess their potential therapeutic use.

“We, as scientists, are always comparing pathways in different systems and plants,” she explained. “We are always in pursuit of new possibilities. The more we learn, the more we are able to recognize the similarities and differences that could be key to the next breakthrough.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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