From aspirin to morphine, a multitude of widely-used drugs are derived from or inspired by compounds found in the plant kingdom. The Chinese skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis, could be the latest plant to yield life-saving medicine, after recent research into how it synthesises molecules with anti-cancer properties. Traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat fevers and ailments in the lungs and liver, skullcaps produce specific compounds, known as flavones, which have been shown to act as antioxidants and block the growth of tumours. Flavones have multiple roles in plants, including as pigments in flowers, but those found in the skullcap roots are set apart by a unique chemical structure. Scientists have very recently pieced together the biochemical pathway through which these particular molecules are made; this should enable the synthesis of similar flavones on a wider scale in laboratories, a critical first step towards properly testing their potential as cancer drugs.
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