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Firm seeks yews to treat cancer

14 March 2014

Healing yew: harvesting trees at St. Mary's, Painswick. Taxus baccata is used in chemotherapy treatment

Healing yew: harvesting trees at St. Mary's, Painswick. Taxus baccata is used in chemotherapy treatment

CHURCHES are being asked to help fight cancer with an unusual weapon - their yew trees. The drug paclitaxel, which is used in chemotherapy treatments for various cancers, can be made from yew clippings, and one firm is appealing for churches with yew trees or hedges to come forward.

Matthew Cooke, from Friendship Estates, said: "The clippings are the raw material in the production of paclitaxel. . . We collect in vans from all of mainland UK, and are interested in anyone who has over 40 metres of hedge or equivalent topiary."

One church that sells its yew clippings is St Mary's, Painswick, in the diocese of Gloucester. A churchwarden, David Bishop, said that it had 123 yews in the churchyard, which produced two-and-a-half tonnes of clippings each year.

"They are shipped off to this pharmaceutical firm in Germany, and they are apparently a very good source of cancer drugs," he said last week. "We had no idea until this firm mentioned it - it was quite a surprise."

The proceeds of selling the clippings come to £100 more than the cost of pruning the 300-year-old trees. The money is reinvested in maintaining the churchyard, which costs St Mary's nearly £10,000 a year.

The environmental adviser tothe Archbishops' Council, David Shreeve, said that because yew trees were evergreen, they did not produce much new growth, which was where the chemical used in paclitaxel was found.

"There are a few churchyards with several yew trees, but even these may find it difficult, I suspect, to produce a commercial harvest. The UK is said to have the world's largest collection of ancient yews, and many of these are in churchyards.

"Several of those estimated to be at least 2000 years old - and therefore alive at the time of Christ - were used to propagate some 8000 young trees, which were distributed at special services in churches and cathedrals for local communities to celebrate the new millennium."

Mr Bishop said that his church was pleased to learn that its ancient trees were helping people to recover from cancer. "It's nice to have a very modern use for these old yew trees, which makes them even more fascinating."

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