Australian researchers have discovered a potentially potent new cancer-fighting agent in a most unlikely source: a tobacco plant. Many plants possess potent defenses against invading pests, and there is a long tradition of analyzing these compounds for potential medical value. Following that tradition, the researchers in this study, from La Trobe University in Australia, decided to analyze compounds from tobacco plants, which have long been believed to possess especially powerful defenses. This particular agent was isolated from Nicotinia alata, an ornamental tobacco plant that is rarely smoked.
Finding anti-cancer agents inside tobacco may seem like a pretty strange coincidence, but it’s not unheard of to find help in harmful places. Consider Curare, a fearsome paralyzing poison isolated from a variety of tropical plants that was used on dart tips by indigenous South American tribes. In smaller doses, it is a muscle relaxant that was widely used in anesthesia until a few decades ago. Similarly, digoxin, an important heart medication known for stabilizing erratic heartbeats that originates from Digitalis lanata, or the foxglove plant was used as an instrument of torture, as far back as the thirteenth century.
The Australian researchers might have been tapping into an even older tradition than they realized. Centuries before its health risks became widely known, smoking tobacco was regarded as a cure for all manner of illnesses, especially syphilis. In addition to syphilis, tobacco was a common folk remedy for a wide range of afflictions including asthma, headache, gout, cramps, “female illness,”and intestinal parasites. According to The American Journal of Folklore, it was even recommended for used in the treatment of an accidentally amputated thumb. The virtues of tobacco were so widely admired that it came to be seen as a wonder drug or even a general tonic for maintaining good health. Colonial English travelers, described in a 2005 paper in Early American Studies, attributed the robust constitutions of Native Americans to regular tobacco smoking. Opinions of tobacco certainly have changed.
Thanks to biochemistry, the presumed health benefits of tobacco may have finally been realized although not in any of the ways its 18th-century proponents believed. Modern science has made the tobacco plant accessible in ways our ancestors never could have conceived, and perhaps, if this new discovery translates into a cure, will have accidentally proved some of that misguided faith to be true after all.