Bluebells: the natural way to fight Aids and cancer

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Treatments for HIV infection and cancer could be developed from the humble bluebell after a government scientific body joined forces with a drugs company yesterday to spearhead research.

Scientists at an institute in Wales have shown that bluebells, and their close relation the harebell, are packed with chemicals which they use as a defence mechanism against animals and insect pests.

The biologically active compounds are strikingly like two similar compounds extracted from a plant in Australia and America which are now undergoing clinical trials with cancer and HIV patients in the US.

Dr Alison Watson, of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Aberystwyth, Dyfed, said: "The bluebell produces compounds very similar to them. They are not identical, but similar enough to get us excited." They all work by inhibiting certain enzymes in the body.

The institute, which is part of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, yesterday announced an alliance with Xenova Discovery Limited to build up a library of such potentially money-spinning compounds.

They aim to apply new analytical techniques to the search for previously unknown bioactive compounds from both European and tropical plants.

However, it may prove impossible for the development to be wholly high- tech. Dr Watson said they might be dependent on whole fields of the flowers being grown for their commercial value. "Some of these compounds are very difficult to produce synthetically, so you have to farm the plants. They could certainly be very pretty."

The bluebell is not the only plant being investigated. But IGER and Xenova, which specialises in the discovery of novel pharmaceutical drugs from natural sources such as fungi, were keeping quiet yesterday about the possibilities of other flowers.

Professor Clive Loveday, one of Britain's leading Aids experts, who has an interest in herbal medicines, said he was not surprised by the potential for the bluebell. "Just like humans, plants have an immune system and it's the chemicals they use to defend themselves that have these medical applications," he said.

"Plants have the ability to synthesise extremely exotic molecules which would take chemists years to copy, if they could ever do it at all."