Ont. backs research on hemlock against cancer

A research firm plans to look for ways to get cancer-fighting compounds out of ground hemlock, possibly creating a new crop for northern Ontario farmers.

Biosphere Labs plans to set up a pilot facility at Sault Ste. Marie, where it’s expected to work on methods to extract compounds from the plant, also known as Canada yew, a low-spreading, slow-growing shrub of the North American northeast.

If successfully extracted, the compounds would then go into production of Paclitaxel, a drug now used to treat various cancers, primarily breast, lung and ovarian cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Paclitaxel is off patent protection, thus generic versions are available. It’s also sold under the brand names Taxol and, in the U.S., Onxol.

Biosphere has picked up a $42,150 grant from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC) for the Sault Ste. Marie facility.

The NOHFC, which operates through the province’s northern development department, previously put up $117,750 for a 2004 evaluation of the potential for growing Canada yew in the Algoma area, where one yew plantation now operates.

That evaluation had found Canada yew could be grown successfully on plantations in northern Ontario, the province said. The best growth, it noted, came from plants treated with mulch and compost.

“This investment will help researchers tap into northern forests to create medication that could treat cancer,” local MPP David Orazetti said in a provincial release Thursday.

“Our government recognizes that this initiative has the potential to improve patient care while expanding the biomedical economy in Sault Ste. Marie.”

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