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At least 25% of prescription and non-prescription drugs in the U.S. can trace their origins to “natural products”: chemicals that are made by plants, bacteria, fungi, marine creatures, among others. Many antibiotics and cholesterol-lowering drugs are the most common drugs with roots in nature.
For this month’s Science Café, we will hear from a living treasure of the state of North Carolina, Dr. Manusukh Wani. A native of Bombay, India, who then earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Indiana University, Wani arrived here in 1962 to join the Natural Products Laboratory of Research Triangle Institute (RTI). RTI was the first research laboratory established following the incorporation of Research Triangle Park in 1959. During Wani’s 44-year career there, he was credited as co-discoverer of not one but two life-saving anticancer drugs derived from plants.
Best known of these is Taxol, or paclitaxel, first isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, a drug that revolutionized the treatment of ovarian, breast, and lung cancer. Together with his long-time colleague and lab director, the late Dr. Monroe Wall, Wani also identified a drug called camptothecin from a Chinese ornamental tree grown in California. Camptothecin gave rise to two new anticancer drugs, topotecan and irinotecan, that are used to treat colon cancer and other malignancies. Each of the drugs killed cancer cells in ways that were not previously known to science.
Wani and Wall received many awards together, including the Charles F. Kettering Prize for Cancer Research. After Wall’s passing in 2002, Dr. Wani presided over the dedication of the RTI Natural Products Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark of the American Chemical Society in 2003. Wani also received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Indiana University in 2004. In 2005, Wani received the North Carolina Award for science, the highest civilian honor in the state. Following “retirement” in 2008, Wani continues to work at his RTI office and contribute to drug discovery research at other institutions.
In our new Daily Planet Café, Dr. Wani will sit down to chat with the Museum’s science communications director, Dr. David Kroll, to share the inspirational stories of these life-changing discoveries. Dr. Wani will also welcome your questions about his work and the future of nature as a source for life-saving drugs.
NEW: The event will be broadcast via livestream.com/naturalsciences  beginning at 7pm. Questions can be sent via Twitter by including @naturalsciences or #wani hashtag in your tweet.
For more information on the history of the discoveries of Taxol and campothecin, see this excellent article by the American Chemical Society at: http://bit.ly/WaniLandmark 
A more personal interview with Dr. Wani can be found at: