PULLMAN, Wash. — Rodney Croteau, a biochemist at Washington State University and the first to isolate the gene involved in the biosynthesis of taxol, recently received a $977,000 grant as one of “selected investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors.” The grant will allow Croteau freedom to follow up on promising new research leads.
The Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institutes of Health is intended to encourage proven researchers by assuring them of long-term support and sparing them the burden of writing frequent renewal applications.
The National Academy of Science, of which Croteau is a member, has characterized Croteau’s past work concerning biosynthesis and metabolism of terpene compounds as “ingenious and creative… (Croteau’s) studies have produced a new paradigm for all terpenoid cyclization reactions in plants.”
Terpenoids form a class of chemicals that play diverse physiological, metabolic, and structural roles in plants such as hormones, pigments, mediators of polysaccharide assembly, and cell wall structure. Terpenoids also serve as antibiotics and herbivore repellents and to attract pollinators and seed dispersers.
Humans use terpenoids as essential oils, resins, waxes and a wide range of industrial products such as solvents, flavorings and fragrances, adhesives, and the well- known terpenoid polymer rubber. Important agrochemicals such as the pyrethrins and pharmaceuticals such as taxol are also terpenoids.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute considers taxol the most promising new anti-cancer drug of the last decade. Croteau’s isolation of the responsible gene represents a critical first step toward increasing availability and making this costly drug affordable to substantially more patients.
Presently a single dose of Taxol can cost as much as $1800. It is also estimated that treating all potential patients with taxol would require sacrificing approximately 600,000 of the already scarce Yew trees. A promising alternative is to insert the gene into certain fungi and have them synthesize the drug during fermentation. Several drugs, such as interferon and insulin, have been effectively manufactured this way, and Croteau believes the future of taxol production lies in this process.