125. Taxol and Yews

You may be familiar with yew plants that are commonly used as decorative shrubs in gardens or as hedges. This plant and several other species in the genus – including the Pacific yew from the northwestern United States – contain an anticancer compound called paclitaxel. Known as the chemotherapy drug Taxol, this compound has saved thousands of lives. 

When Taxol was first developed, it could not be synthesized. It took the bark of several large trees to supply the raw material to treat one cancer patient. As a result, Himalayan yew trees were threatened by demand for them as the primary commercial source of Taxol. Fortunately, partial synthesis from the needles and twigs of cultivated yews was quickly developed, and today Taxol is fully synthesized.