VIDEO: Using nature as inspiration, Stanford's Wender Group creates lifesaving compounds in the laboratory. A redwood grove in Castle Rock State Park stands as a powerful monument to their work.
Video by Melanie Galand for Hilltromper. Story by Traci Hukill.
Nov. 8, 2016—In 1962, a moonshot-style government program to find cures for cancer in the wild led a botanist to gather samples from a Pacific yew tree in Washington. Two years later a chemist in North Carolina's new Research Triangle discovered that the bark from the sample contained a compound poisonous to cells. By the time Taxol was approved by the FDA, in 1992, and its name trademarked, it had become the bunker-buster drug in the fight against breast, ovarian and lung cancers—the thing that worked when nothing else did.
"I can't think of any greater example of something coming out of our natural ecosystem and just transforming medicine," says Dr. Paul Wender, Francis W. Bergstrom Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University and head of the Wender Group of researchers. Article continues below video.
Watch 'The Heart and Science of the Wender Group Grove'
But the slow-growing Pacific yew was a reluctant collaborator in the war on cancer. The bark of an entire 75-year-old tree was required to treat a single patient. And "its natural abundance is ridiculously small," says Wender. There just wasn't enough Taxol to meet demand.
In 1996 the Wender Group succeeded in "total synthesis" of Taxol (meaning they figured out how to create it from scratch in the laboratory). Their work helped pave the way for Taxol—now produced via "semi-synthesis" using some material from renewable yew trees—to become the best-selling cancer-fighting drug in history, saving countless lives and leaving the scarce stands of Pacific yews intact.
Memorializing A Mission
In 2002 the graduate students of the Wender Group approached Paul's wife Jacqueline about a holiday gift idea for him that would have lasting impact. Jacqueline Wender, a university administrator and Peninsula native, suggested dedicating a redwood grove through the innovative Sempervirens Fund Tribute Program.
Securing the Wender Group Grove, a magical five acres located in a part of Castle Rock State Park that is ordinarily closed to visitors, was a multi-year effort. Wender Group alumni from around the world sent in donations to honor their mentor in a way that was utterly unique—and completely appropriate to the Wender Group's work, which takes so much of its inspiration from this "planet that has been doing chemistry for about 4 billion years," as Wender says.
"I think of this as Nature's library," he explains in a 2012 video. "And so finally the library has been opened, because we have the tools now to go in and read these books."
The poetic and communal value of the Wender Group Grove are undeniable. "The trees are iconic. They reach for the light, they endure, they live for thousands years," says Jacqueline Wender, who went on to join the board of Sempervirens Fund and now serves as board president. "And the idea that something can be in the forest for such a long time—that just brings enormous meaning into my life."
Wender Group member and fourth-year graduate student Ryan Quiroz, who came to Stanford specifically to work with Paul Wender, says the grove, like its namesake, is unique. "The Wender Grove really symbolizes community, family," he says. "I can't think of a single lab in the world, really, that has something like this."
Read about how the Sempervirens Fund Tribute Program and Google Trekker are teaming up to reinvent gifts and memorials. Learn more about the Sempervirens Fund Tribute Program.