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Cancer Cure or Conservation

A Question of Health for Humans and the Ecosystem

Pauline A. Lizotte
Mathematics, Science and Health Careers
Manchester Community College
Gretchen E. Knapp
Biology Department
Illinois State University


This case is based on the controversy that surrounded harvesting of the Pacific yew from 1989 to 1997 to develop paclitaxel (Taxol), a revolutionary anti-cancer drug. The case was designed to expose students to basic conservation biology concepts by examining competing needs among scientists and other stakeholders in a real-life science-and-society scenario. Developed for a undergraduate introductory biology course for non-majors, the case could also be used in an environmental science course or in a course on the impact of science and technology on society.


  • To learn about the risks and benefits of bio-prospecting.
  • To learn about ethnobotany and its importance to the drug industry.
  • To examine the direct and indirect benefits of T. brevifolia in the Pacific Northwest ecosystem.
  • To learn about the anti-cancer drug Taxol and the controversy surrounding its production.
  • To explore the complexity of scientific work and its interactions with public policy.
  • To gain a better appreciation of the complexities involved in land use decisions.


Taxol; paclitaxel; Taxus brevifolia; T. brevifolia; anti-cancer drug; bioprospecting; bio-prospecting; drug development; Pacific Northwest ecosystem; ethnobotany; Pacific Yew Act of 1992; Quinault

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Discussion



Subject Headings

Environmental Science Botany / Plant Science Biology (General) Natural Resource Management

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.


Nadine Lehrer
Forest Resources
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, MN
We used this case on the first day of class as an introduction to the role of ethics in environmental science. It worked well because students were able to be active right away and to identify ethical issues that we could then discuss more in class. We followed the teaching notes reasonably well, and I think that worked out. Thank you!