One of the bright hopes in cancer research is the discovery that taxol, a compound derived from yew trees, is effective against ovarian cancer, a disease that kills 12,000 women in the U. S. alone each year. The drug also shows promise in treating breast, lung, and colon cancer. But supplies are very scarce, because taxol is made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, a relatively rare, slow-growing species found only in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately, taxol's carbon-ring chemical structure is difficult to synthesize. Now, two small biotechnology companies, Phyton Catalytic Inc. in Ithaca, N. Y., and ESCAgenetics Corp. in San Carlos, Calif., may have a better solution. Independently, the companies are developing fermentation processes that will coax cells of the yew tree to produce taxol in a bioreactor, similar to the way yeast makes alcohol.
Phyton has an exclusive license from the Agriculture Dept. to use its tissue-culture technology to produce taxol and similar compounds and has already tested the process in the lab. The next step: full-scale production systems, a process that could take two to five years, says Rustin R. Howard, Phyton's president. ESCAgenetics officials say their process has also been proven in lab tests--and should be ready for commercial production within the next two years.