Catnip: Plant That Gets Cats High Could Help Make Human Cancer Drugs

What's good for cats could be great for their owners as well.

Cats enjoy simple pleasures like bird murder and sitting in squares, but nothing beats getting laced with catnip. The latter is the focus of a study published Monday in Nature Chemical Biology, which shows that the chemical process that helps cats get high on catnip can be used to help humans dealing with cancer.

Nepeta cataria, catnip’s scientific name, is a plant in the mint family that produces a chemical terpene called nepetalactone. This chemical triggers a state of feline ecstasy in about two-thirds of cats, which includes big ones like tigers and lynx. When nepetalactone binds to as-yet-unidentified receptors in the tissue around the nasal area, it activates the same neuronal pathways as feline sexual pheromones. Other plants, like valerian and silver vine, have similar effects.

The study was co-authored by University of York lecturer Benjamin Lichman, Ph.D., who explained to Inverse that the unique, enzyme-driven way that the catnip plant produces nepetalactone could vastly improve the way humans create cancer drugs.

A special thing about catnip is that it produces nepetalactones while closely related plant species do not. Peppermint, for example, is also in the mint family but doesn’t produce the same compound. One major difference between the plants, the team shows, is that peppermint’s compounds are formed by a single enzyme, whereas catnip chemicals are actually created in a two-step enzymatic process. In catnip, one enzyme activates a precursor compound, which is then “grabbed” by a second enzyme. The result is nepetalactone, which serves the plant by repelling some insects and attracting others.

Nepetalactone, it turns out, not only drives some cats wild but also has the same chemical structure as aphid sex pheromones. “We think that by producing these volatile compounds, the plant ‘confuses’ insects,” explains Lichman, “which prevents them from landing on the plant and eating it.”

Catnip only affects two-thirds of cats, but its chemical processes may benefit all humans.

Unsplash / Ludemeula Fernandes

Catnip’s two-enzyme nepetalactone-making process is important because it can inform the way scientists create compounds to treat diseases. “In a nutshell,” Lichman says, “we are proposing that enzymes from catnip will help us develop new, and perhaps cheaper, ways of making existing anti-cancer drugs.”

Compounds harvested from plants are already used to make two anti-cancer drugs: vinblastine and vincristine. These both need compounds from the Madagascan periwinkle, but the compound-harvesting process is inefficient and expensive. There’s been a recent effort to produce plant-derived drugs using “synthetic biology” systems, says Lichman, but these have largely been slow-moving.

But now that they know how catnip uses its two-step enzymatic process to produce its key chemical so efficiently, the team hopes this new knowledge can inform synthetic biology systems to synthesize compounds for cancer drugs more efficiently and quickly. Catnip is a great time for cats — but it can do a lot more good for humans.

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