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What is Taxol?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Taxol is the trademark for paclitaxel, a drug used to treat an assortment of tumorous cancers. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) currently controls the rights to paclitaxel. This drug can be extremely effective for some cancer patients, although it is also very costly, and not covered by all insurance programs. In some regions, patients may be asked to pay for their own Taxol, contributing significantly to the cost of cancer treatment.

Paclitaxel works by interrupting with the process of cell division, making it difficult for tumors to continue growing. When taken in conjunction with chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments, Taxol can help to shrink cancers and eventually eradicate them from the body. It is also sometimes prescribed as a long-term treatment for cancer survivors, to inhibit the recurrence of cancer in the critical years following cancer treatment. The drug is used to treat lung, ovarian, breast, head/neck, bladder, prostate, and esophageal cancers, along with Kaposi's Sarcoma.

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This drug was discovered by the National Cancer Institute in the United States in 1967. BMS acquired the rights to Taxol after contributing to research on the drug, and assisting with dosage calculations. The assignment of Taxol rights has been viewed as controversial, because some people believe that BMS profited significantly from a discovery made by a government agency which is supposed to benefit the American people, not drug companies. Others point out that BMS contributed significant funds to the development of the drug, including funds used to develop a semi-synthetic form of Taxol, and that therefore the company has a right to recoup its investment.

Initially, Taxol was developed from the bark of the Pacific Yew. Later, other yews proved to be valuable sources of the drug, and BMS researchers found that it could be synthesized from compounds present in the needles of many yew trees, allowing the company to make Taxol without damaging forests. In pure form, Taxol is a white powder. The drug is provided in the form of a liquid which must be injected or infused into patients.

Because Taxol is an irritant, it must be injected carefully, as inflammation around the injection site can occur. Many patients also experience allergic reactions, so it is common to prescribe medications to prevent this when Taxol is administered.

A variety of side effects are associated with Taxol, including edema, nausea, hair loss, joint pain, darking of the skin, changes in the nails, low blood counts, mouth sores, and hypersensitivity. In combination with other symptoms related to cancer treatment, Taxol can make patients quite uncomfortable, and people are often advised to rest after a Taxol infusion, and to avoid strenuous activity.

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