The Untapped Powers Of The Indiana Banana

Purdue University's Jerry L. McLaughlin has always had good reason to suspect that the paw-paw tree, sometimes known as the Indiana banana, is a potential pharmacy. Eating the shrub's bananalike fruit when he was a kid made him sick. Years later, as a chemist, he reasoned that the plant contained potent chemicals that just might be medicinal. So when McLaughlin devised two simple tests to screen plants for biological activity--seeing if they kill ocean shrimp or plant cancer cells--he included the paw-paw.

Sure enough, he found that a substance in paw-paw twigs is a powerful pesticide against many insects. That explains why insects hardly ever dine on the tree. He also discovered another substance in the tree that kills cancerous leukemia cells in mice. It is 300 times as potent as taxol, a promising cancer drug extracted from the bark of the yew tree. McLaughlin is now trying to get companies interested in developing the two chemicals.

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