A remarkable discovery by British scientists offers the prospect of the humble bluebell wildflower making an important contribution in the treatment of diseases like HIV and certain cancers.
For researchers at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth have isolated a group of alkaloids in the plant. Although these compounds have been isolated from tropical plants for some time, their discovery in the bluebell has been the first indication that they are also present in native plants.
Alkaloids derived from tropical plants can also be scarce, expensive and difficult to obtain. Of those that were isolated from such plants some time ago, the derivatives of two are undergoing clinical trials as anti-HIV drugs.
The work by the institute's plant chemistry group is in collaboration with synthetic chemists at Oxford University.
Robert Nash, head of the group, says that alkaloids contain nitrogen and are often the active components in medicinal plants. They also account for a large proportion of toxins in plants. Plants produce these compounds to protect themselves, and bluebells used to be regarded as poisonous to cattle. But they can also be used for producing drugs and pesticides and food flavouring.
Alkaloids that are widely used for medicinal purposes include morphine, atropine and quinine.
Dr Nash says that modern analytical techniques have shown that the bluebell contains no less than 15 novel alkaloids that could have important pharmaceutical, therapeutic or agrochemical applications.
One of the most interesting findings about the bluebells is that they possess a range of new alkaloid structures, he says.
It is not just the bluebell, one of Wales's most common wildflowers, that is providing encouragement to the alkaloid hunters. Dr Nash says there are many new alkaloid structures in very common British plant species such as harebell, woody nightshade and even crops such as potatoes.