PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS)–An 18-year-old high school student has discovered a promising new source of an anti-cancer drug used to treat woman’s cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers.
Lia LaBrant, who graduated this spring from Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Wash., extracted paclitaxel, commonly known as Taxol from a tree fungus while on advanced biology placement at the University of Portland. LaBrant’s research was supervised by Sister Angela Hoffman, a biochemistry professor and nun who has been researching alternative sources of Taxol for more than 10 years.
In April, LaBrant’s discovery earned her first place in the 40th National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department and the Academy of Applied Science. She also received $20,000 in college scholarships and a two-week expenses-paid trip to London in July to attend an international youth science forum.
If LaBrant’s findings hold true–an independent laboratory has yet to confirm the results–she may have discovered a plentiful and inexpensive way to produce Taxol, which was originally harvested in small amounts from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. When collected that way, treating just one patient meant destroying six trees, so for more than 10 years researchers have been looking for alternative sources.
Currently commercial producers synthesize the drug from a related chemical in the needles of the European Yew. Since 1994 researchers have been able to synthesize Taxol artificially, but the process, which involves 40 steps, has yet to prove commercially viable. LaBrant’s fungus could offer a simpler alternative, since it appears to produce far more Taxol than the amount available in the Yew tree.
Taxol is in high demand because it is the treatment of choice for a range of illnesses where cells proliferate uncontrollably, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, melanoma and polycystic kidney disease. A form of chemotherapy, it works by preventing cells–both cancerous and healthy–from dividing. It is most commonly injected into cancer patients, but researchers are now studying a cream form that could help control the skin disease psoriasis.
The drug is not without unpleasant and even serious side effects. It can cause hair loss, nerve damage and immune suppression. But its risks are often said to outweighed by its ability to slow and even arrest many advanced ovarian, breast and lung cancers.
LaBrant Aspires to Be Pediatric Cardiologist
A budding pediatric cardiologist, LaBrant has completed the International Baccalaureate, a prestigious pre-college program which offers high school students an internationally recognized diploma. Because baccalaureate students also receive college credit for the advanced courses they pass, she can earn her undergraduate degree in less than three years.
Kelly Cameron, LaBrant’s biology teacher, says she recommends only her most motivated students to the University of Portland program. Students spend two years working in Hoffman’s biochemistry laboratory, learning about scientific methods and conducting their own research.
“Lia impressed me because she called me up over the summer,” Cameron says. “She knew she had to do a research project and she wanted to get started.”
At first LaBrant’s interest in cancer research was purely academic, but it became more personal last year when a close family friend was diagnosed with uterine cancer and treated with Taxol.
“She wasn’t my original motivation, but she was a continuing motivation,” LaBrant says. “We used to carve pumpkins together every Halloween. She has been taking Taxol and now she’s clinically cancer-free. She came to meet me at the airport after I received the award and that meant a lot to me.”
During the first year of the program, LaBrant hadn’t yet learned to drive, so her parents ferried her to and from the university–a 60-mile round trip. LaBrant spent between four and five hours each week learning research methods.
“I have a sort of reverence for professors, so at first it was intimidating just working with Professor Hoffman,” LaBrant says. “I was scared, but not for long because she is a very nice person and a great mentor.”
Much of the work was routine, following a prescribed series of steps each designed to extract a particular chemical. Yet the science behind each step was so complicated that LaBrant didn’t at first understand the reasoning behind her work.
“I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing,” she says, “but over the next few months I kept asking Dr. Hoffman questions and doing research on my own. Over time I found out what each step was for and by the end of the first year I pretty well understood everything.
“I had no problem with the grunt work,” she adds. “I thought it was fun–not like going out swing dancing, but it was relaxing and it made the very complex analysis more interesting.”
LaBrant began her research by investigating several trees and eight tree fungi with no success. Hoffman says LaBrant persisted despite many discouraging moments.
“At one point it looked like she had found Taxol in a tree, then a few months later there was nothing there,” Hoffman says. “But rather than give up, which a lot of kids would do, she decided to try another angle. She has pretty good instincts on doing research and that’s rare.”
Advised by Hoffman not to expect too much, LaBrant says she was prepared for none of her fungi samples to yield Taxol. When nine of the samples did produce the substance she was surprised and excited.
“My goal in doing this was to find alternate sources so they could make it available to patients at a lower cost, because Taxol is really expensive,” she says.
“I think everyone considers giving up at some point, but I was lucky to find Taxol at all. I just had to keep on going–and I was ultimately rewarded.”
Health Care Advocates Criticize High Cost of Taxol
Developed by the National Institutes of Health, Taxol was marketed in 1992 by the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Health-care advocates have accused the company of price gouging, affecting many thousands of patients worldwide. In the United States alone, more than 23,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. Ovarian cancer accounts for 4 percent of women’s cancer diagnoses.
The Consumer Project on Technology, a consumer advocacy group, reported that by 2000, a manufacturer could produce 1 milligram of the generic drug for 7 cents. Yet Taxol’s cost to health providers was more than $6 per milligram.
“Consumers are paying for Taxol twice,” says Larry Sasich, a pharmacist with the advocacy group Public Citizen. “They paid once through their taxes for the work done by the National Institutes of Health and they’re paying again in their insurance premiums.”
No longer under patent, Taxol is now marketed generically as paclitaxel and the price has dropped. But it’s difficult to say how much because pharmaceutical companies keep their prices under wraps and negotiate different prices with different buyers.
“We don’t publish our prices at all,” says Howard Goldman, a spokesman for the pharmaceutical company IVAX, which produces a generic form of the drug. “It has come down substantially from where the brand price was before IVAX launched the generic.”
Several companies have shown interest in LaBrant’s method of producing Taxol, Hoffman says, but so far none have agreed to license the process. Meanwhile, University of Portland researchers are working with the fungi to find out exactly how much Taxol it would yield on a long-term basis.
In addition to visiting London and working as a camp counselor this summer, LaBrant also managed to spend time documenting the continuing yield of her original fungi samples. Now she’s heading to George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., to begin a pre-med program. She hopes to transfer to Boston University in 2003.
Helen Silvis is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. Her work has been published in the Portland Tribune, The Scotsman, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin, Northwest Education Magazine and on the French newswire Agence France-Presse.
For more information:
The University of Bristol–
Molecule of the Month: Taxol:
Consumer Project on Technology–
“Disputes involving Paclitaxel, a cancer drug sold under different brand
names, including Taxol”:
For more information:
Women’s Equality Day Poll Finds Support for ERA
By Chris Lombardi
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As the 82nd anniversary of women’s suffrage approached, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney had an idea: to poll the American people and see what they thought about equal rights for women.Maloney, a 20-year House veteran, commissioned the national polling organization of Penn, Schoen and Brewer to ask voters pointed questions concerning women’s rights. The results, released Monday to coincide with Women’s Equality Day–the date 82 years ago when women gained the right to vote–ranged from predictable to startling. Among the 500 people polled across the country:
- 96 percent said they supported legal protection of women’s rights;
- 82 percent believed those rights were already protected under the United States Constitution;
- 69 percent supported amending the Constitution to include language that specifically protects women. Among Republicans, support stood at 58 percent.
Gathered in Maloney’s Upper East Side garden apartment to hear the results Monday were women from numerous levels of government and women’s organizations. Liz Krueger, a first-term New York state assemblywoman locked in a bruising re-election campaign, noted that only 2 percent of state contracts go to women-owned businesses; women garner 3 percent of such federal contracts, she said.
Gail Brewer, a member of the New York City Council, noted that term limits had reduced the number of women on the council from 17 to 12–an impact not unlike that of term limits on women’s representation in state legislatures.
Other women offered reports on women’s continued inequality, from the think tank Catalyst’s showing a decline in women chief executive officers to the Maloney-Dingell commission’s findings that indicate that not only does the wage gap remain at 73 cents to the dollar, but also women in management have actually lost ground in the last five years. Shauna Shames, research director for the White House Project, observed that in the national bully pulpit known as Sunday morning chat shows, women make up about 12 percent of the guests; their time spent talking is just 10 percent of a given program’s running time.
Taken together, the reports offered an accumulated picture of inequality across the board. And many say they make a compelling case for constitutional protection. “Eighty-two percent think we already have it!” cried Maloney, a longtime champion of the Equal Rights Amendment, who last year re-introduced the legislation in Congress for the first time. She has promised to-reintroduce the amendment every year until it passes, with a declared goal of passage by 2020.
The amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and receive the signature of the president before it goes to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of states must ratify the amendment for it to take effect. This year, Maloney has 210 co-sponsors. “It’s time to make it real,” she said, to an appreciative roar from the 40 guests.