pierre laszlo

Taxus baccata L. (Taxaceae)

For centuries, this long-lived tree, with a lifespan measured in centuries, was nested against cemeteries, in Christian countries. A tradition that people heeded, the succession of generations was an important background to life, as it had always occurred.

The novelty came from the wild, in the Pacific Northwest. From systematic screening of natural products in the American Cancer Institute, scientists found in 1971 a powerful antitumoral, taxol, in the bark of the yew tree.

At first, it seemed that people were being pitted against nature : an entire tree would be needed to cure a single patient. Moreover, there was an endangered animal species associated with this ecosystem, a spotted owl. Environmentalists became alerted and militant. It might have become an ugly struggle.

By 1993, chemists had evolved solutions to the problem. Instead of using the natural product, named taxol, they synthesized it from scratch. Even better, and this was the solution imagined by my late friend, Pierre Potier, he devised, jointly with Andrew Greene in Grenoble, a partial synthesis, with yew needles as the starting material — which made the whole procedure more elegant and more economical. Currently, during the first decades of the twenty-first century, an order-of-magnitude cost to the health systems in developed countries is about 7-14 USD per 100 mg vial.

Nowadays, taxol and taxotere are choice standard treatments for many cancers. They owe their antitumoral action to inhibition of the self-assembly of tubulin, a pre-requisite to cell division. Which goes with some tough side-effects.

Pierre Potier waged a personal battle against breast cancer, that had killed his first wife. Indeed, he also devised another powerful antitumoral, navelbine, from a Madagascar periwinkle.

Remarkable for its longevity, the yew now increases that of people: how appropriate!