Natural Compounds with Anticancer Activity and Agricultural Possibilities in Desert Plants and Associated Microorganisms

Enhance Economic Opportunities for Agricultural Producers
Research Year: 

Scientists at the Office of Arid Lands Studies’ Southwestern Center for Natural Products Research and Commercialization (SCNPRC) are working with universities in and outside the United States, with agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies, and with other commercial entities to develop new biological and industrial products. The SCNPRC is part of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The ultimate goal of this collaborative research program is to discover 1) specialty chemicals in indigenous desert plants that can be grown as industrial cash crops and 2) plant-associated microorganisms that can be used to produce pharmaceuticals and natural products with agricultural implications. Natural product-based anti-cancer drugs and agrochemicals are in particular demand.

Description of Action: 

The SCNPRC team selects plants and plant-associated microorganisms and in collaboration with other scientists, evaluates them for useful biological activities. If active, the scientists separate and characterize the natural compounds responsible for the activity, and determine how to cultivate and process these organisms on a commercial scale. In the case of anti-cancer agents, those showing promise will proceed into animal testing for efficacy. The SCNPRC group, in collaboration with the UA Division of Plant Pathology, the Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Pediatric Oncology and Surgery, the Arizona Cancer Center, Arizona State University, Josephine Ford Cancer Center, Harvard University, Whitehead Institute, China Pharmaceutical University, and DuPont Crop Protection Division is currently pursuing some plant and microorganism-derived compounds for their in vitro and in vivo anticancer activity and also their utility in improving agricultural production in arid lands.


A natural compound occurring in a plant-associated microorganism has been shown to make the model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana thermotolerant–able to withstand high temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Intellectual property protection for this unusual activity has been sought and further work to evaluate its implications in arid land agriculture is currently being pursued in collaboration with Harvard University and the Whitehead Institute.

Animal studies of anti-cancer compounds isolated from two medicinal plants, one used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and the other in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, have shown encouraging anti-angiogenic activity–the ability to halt cancerous growths by inhibiting the spread of blood vessels that nourish tumors and enable them to spread into vital organs of the body. Intellectual property protection for this novel activity of these compounds will be sought. This is part of an ongoing effort to find natural products with unique applications from arid lands organisms, allowing conservation and maintenance of the delicate desert ecosystem.

Funding Agencies: 

Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station–Natural Products Center; Arizona Disease Control Research Commission; CAPCURE; Public Health Funding from NIH and NCI; Department of Defense Prostate Cancer Program; American Institute for Cancer Research

Conact Name: 
Leslie Gunatilaka
Contact E-mail: 
Contact Address: 

The University of Arizona

250 E. Valencia Road

Tucson, AZ 85706

Tel.: (520) 741-1691 FAX: (520) 741-1468