The corn lily appears harmless enough. But when a pregnant ewe eats this mountain flower, she gives birth to lambs with grotesque birth defects, such as a missing eye. In 1968, researchers identified the chemical responsible for this damage and named it cyclopamine–for the one-eyed giant of Greek lore.
In recent years, scientists have tested cyclopamine to see whether its assault on the fast-growing cells of embryos and fetuses might be turned against tumor cells, which also multiply rapidly. A new study in mice suggests cyclopamine can inhibit medulloblastoma, a brain cancer in children.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore implanted human medulloblastoma cells under the skin of mice and then gave some of the animals injections of cyclopamine. The treatment stopped the cancer within a week, completely wiping it out in some animals. The drug showed no adverse effects.