Cancer researcher wins ABC's Farnsworth award

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Cancer researcher wins ABC's Farnsworth award
Influential figures in the herbal sphere aren’t always involved in what most would term “natural” products.  So it is with Gordon M Cragg, PhD, the latest recepient of a prominent award from the American Botanical Council.

Dr Cragg was given the Norman R. Farnsworth Award for Excellence in Botanical Research in part for his work in helping to drive the developement of Taxol, one of the early truly effective chemotheraphy drugs that was derived first from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree.

“Dr Cragg’s work was a major contribution to cancer patients and the world of drug discovery from natural products,”​ Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC told NutraIngredients-USA.

Cancer researcher

Dr Cragg spent the majority of his professional career at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute. He was appointed chief of the NCI’s Natural Products Branch (NPB) in 1989; he officially retired in 2004, but has remained highly active with the department as an NIH Special Volunteer. During his time at the NPB, Dr. Cragg received three NIH Awards of Merit for his efforts: for his contributions to the development of the highly successful anticancer drug Taxol and related derivative compounds; for his leadership in establishing international collaborative research in biodiversity and natural products drug discovery; and for his teaching contributions to NIH technology transfer courses. 

Blumenthal said it was especially appropriate to give the award to Dr Cragg because his contribution to the development of this important therapy may not be widely known outside the field of cancer research.

“It was his funding decision to put millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money toward developing this promising natural material,” ​Blumenthal said. “Dr Cragg doesn’t get credit for the discovery but he is the guy behind the scenes who made it all happen. He had the vision and intelligence to see that this needed to be funded and to be continually funded.

“Hundreds of thousands if not millions of cancer patients have been treated with Taxol. And he was the guy calling the shots because he was the one with the money,”​ he said.

“Gordon’s work in this area has been groundbreaking and creative,”​ said Paul Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at NIH. “I have known Gordon personally for about 10 years, during which time we have co-edited two editions of the ​Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements along with other distinguished colleagues. Gordon’s expertise, insight, and careful attention to experimental detail helped to make the botanical entries in the ​Encyclopedia first-rate and extremely useful.” 

After growing up in rural South Africa, Dr Cragg earned his BSc in chemistry from Rhodes University in 1957. He attended the University of Oxford for a PhD in organic chemistry, after which he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, focusing on the biosynthesis of plant hormones.

Throughout his career, Dr Cragg has advocated for natural products research and worked to protect the source materials for drug discovery. For example, Dr. Cragg’s commitment to responsible natural products research is evident in his work in Brazil. He contributed to the development of natural product chemistry programs in the northeast and southeast regions of the country. Furthermore, he played a pivotal role in an initiative to protect the country’s biodiversity and sustainability efforts that led to the exploration of new potential pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and agrochemical products. 

Part of ABC’s mission is about drugs

ABC’s award is named for the late Prof. Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, a research professor of pharmacognosy and senior university scholar in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois — Chicago. Many leading lights in the scientific end of the dietary supplement and natural products world studied under Farnsworth or were influenced by his work.  And a key thing to rememeber, Blumenthal said, was Farnsworth studied plants for their potential value to humans, regardless of where that inforamtion might appear in the marketplace, making it appropriate to give the award to a researcher whose greatest contribution lay in the pharmaceutical arena.

“At the end of the day, Norman Farnsworth was involved in natural drug disovery and research,”​ Blumenthal said. 

“Keeping in mind that ABC focuses its educational materials in the area of herbs as dietary supplements, at the same time part of our educational mission is to support natural medicine research  all the way to isolated plant compounds that form the basis of modern pharmaceutical medicines. In that sense part of the founding of ABC was about looking at plants and fungi as the source of molecules for pharmaceuticals,”​ he said.

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