Plant-based anticancer drugs – from discovery to final product

March 31, 2022

Dr. Thu Thuy Dang
Department of Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry, University of British Columbia, Okanagan

Plants produce myriads nitrogen-containing heterocyclic metabolites called alkaloids. These chemicals serve numerous eco-physiological functions in the plants as well as medicines for humans for thousands of years, with the anticancer agent vinblastine and the painkiller morphine as the best-known examples. The Chinese happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata) produces the anticancer drug camptothecin. Semi-synthetic derivatives of camptothecin, a quinoline alkaloid found in the Camptotheca acuminata tree, are potent anticancer agents such as topotecan (Hycamtin) and irinotecan (Camptosar). Research in Dang’s lab aims at discovering and engineering enzymes from happy tree that facilitate the production of topotecan, irinotecan and new camptothecin-derived analogues. The talk will focus on recent discoveries of new enzymes and how these allow for further understanding of plant biosynthetic pathways and producing of plant-derived drugs.


Dr. Thu Thuy Dang is currently an assistant professor and a Michael Smith Health Research Foundation Scholar in Biochemistry at the Department of Chemistry, University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Before joining UBC, she was a postdoctoral fellow (EMBO) at the John Innes Centre in the laboratory of Dr. Sarah O’Connor (Norwich, UK). Thuy obtained her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Calgary in 2014 and solved the biosynthetic pathway of the anticancer compound noscapine in opium poppy. She has authored and co-authored several papers in journals such as Nature Chemical Biology, Science, Angewandte Chemie, JBC, Communications Chemistry, Plant Physiology, etc.

photo of Dr. Thu Thuy Dang