North West Wales

Bangor Uni scientists hunt for new daffodil treatments

Daffodils Image copyright Thinkstock

The humble daffodil is inextricably linked to Wales - with the plant having been worn as the national flower for the best part of a century.

But could the spring perennial hold the key to future antibacterial, antiparasitic and anti-cancer treatments?

Daffodils have already provided a compound used in an Alzheimer's disease drug, galantamine.

BBC Wales spoke to scientists at Bangor University who are now trying to isolate more disease-fighting compounds from the nation's favourite bulb.

Dr Patrick Murphy, an organic chemist, said his work with daffodils tends to generate more public interest than some of his other research areas.

"I think people can relate to daffodils. Everybody has seen daffodils growing in the spring," he said.

"My other areas of research are working on natural products isolated from marine sources, so sponges and bacteria, and I think these might appear less attractive."

The daffodil was introduced as an emblem of Wales in the 19th Century and popularised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The flower, which is often worn on St David's Day, is also commercially grown in mid Wales.

Dr Murphy and his team are hoping to isolate compounds called alkaloids in the flower for medical purposes.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Galantamine, which is derived from daffodil bulbs is used to treat mild to moderate dementia

He said: "The alkaloids people might know of tend to be the ones that have a powerful spectrum of activity within humans, for example, alkaloids such as caffeine (tea/coffee), nicotine (tobacco) or morphine (poppies).

"We're interested in alkaloids from daffodils and one quite well-known one is galantamine. This is a compound which has been isolated previously and used for treatment of early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

"We're interested in, not just this compound, but other compounds, which have not been exploited to a wide range because of a lack of available amounts of them.

"So, we hope to isolate larger amounts of these alkaloids for use in biological-activity studies."

Wales and the daffodil

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The daffodil is now part of the traditional Welsh costume
  • Daffodils became an alternative symbol of Wales, alongside the more traditional leek, in the 19th century
  • Prime Minister David Lloyd George is said to have worn one during the 1911 Caernarfon investiture as Prince of Wales of the future Edward VIII
  • Lloyd George extolled the virtues of the flower in newspaper articles
  • Some suggest those who have cited daffodils as an iconic part of Welsh life misinterpreted ancient texts
  • Daffodils, which grow in the spring, are worn on St David's Day - 1 March
  • The flower often forms part of the traditional Welsh costume, along with a hat and shawl

The problem is it can often be quite difficult to isolate the compounds without impurities arising during the process.

"But we've found a relatively straight-forward way of doing it without involving too much expense," Dr Murphy said.

"That's often the sticking point, keeping the costs down to a minimum. So, we're quite pleased with where we are at the moment."

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Media captionBangor University's Dr Patrick Murphy explains how he is trying to isolate more disease-fighting compounds from the nation's favourite bulb

The team is looking at compounds from a common variety of the classic yellow daffodil sold in supermarkets.

Dr Murphy said: "There is a reliable variety that produces the major compound of interest. What we're trying to do is to take the waste from our commercial partner's galantamine production and to actually get something from the waste rather than throwing it away."

But how close is the team's work to creating a viable treatment?

"That's a bit of a long way in the distance - it takes a long time to develop a compound from isolation to use in humans," Dr Murphy explained.

"But it would be interesting to isolate these compounds and to test them for ranges of activity such as antibacterial activity, antiparasitic activity and various other disease, possibly antiviral [or] anti-cancer activities."

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