The Cancer Treatment That Launched an American-Canadian Patent War

A Canadian lab testing a folk treatment for diabetes stumbled on an amazing new cancer treatment. The problem was that they stumbled on it a little too late, according to the United States, and it’s led to a grudge that persists to this day.

In the 1950s the Madagascar periwinkle, a type of vinca, was a common folk medicine given to people with diabetes. Diabetes sufferers would be given tea brewed from the plant as a way to control their blood sugar. Diabetes is a serious disease, and so Canadian scientists Robert Noble and Charles Beer decided to see if the plant actually did any good. They tested the extract of the plant on rats and concluded that the folk remedy was folk nonsense. It had no effect on blood sugar, but the duo was surprised to discover that the rat’s white blood cells up and died when exposed to this vinca extract.


And that wasn’t all that vinca extracts killed off. They halted the division of cells by taking out the microtubule spindle fibers that move the chromosomes to where they need to be. Different extracts could halt different processes by killing the cells involved in them. One extract proved especially good at killing of cells making new blood vessels.

The vinca plants were cell killers because they contain specific alkaloids. Alkaloids are a wide variety of compounds, all rich in nitrogen and naturally-occurring; most of them are basic, though there are a few acidic ones. You’ve probably heard of some—caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and quinine. And while no healthy person would want to ingest alkaloids that kill off their white blood cells or stop new blood vessels from forming, a person with leukemia has an interest in taking out their white blood cells, and a person who has a tumor won’t want it growing new blood vessels.


Noble and Beer developed a drug, vinblastine, which is still used to treat specific types of cancer. They were probably in the middle of patting each other on the back when they heard that two Americans had developed the exact same drug from the same plant. Gordon Svoboda at Eli Lilly developed an anti-cancer drug from vinca after testing plant after plant, specifically looking for anti-tumor effects. Everyone there was happy that their diligence paid off, until they heard about two upstarts in Canada.

Since then, neither nation has seemed eager to give up its citizens’ claim to be the first to discover the drug. (Even Britain has a claim—Charles Beer was working in Canada, but was a British scientist.) Canada has officially recognized Noble as the discoverer of the drug; America has not. Most neutral sources state that the two teams discovered the drug near-simultaneously and that they discovered it independently. However, most sources tend to mention Noble and Beer first, so we know whose side they’re on.


[Source: The Drug Book, by Michael C. Gerald]


Image: Dave Proffer.

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