A Coeur d'Alene tree nursery and the U.S. Forest Service are joining in research to develop a promising anti-cancer drug from the Pacific yew.

"We're just getting the program off the ground," nursery manager Joseph Myers said last week. "This is an effort being orchestrated out of our Washington office to look at Pacific yew over its geographic range, which includes Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California."The drug, called taxol, has proved effective in shrinking ovarian tumors and is being tested on other kinds of cancer. The experimental drug is found in the bark and needles of the yew, a bush-size tree long considered a weed by foresters.

Some environmentalists and cancer researchers are seeking threatened species status for the yew. While Forest Service officials contend the tree is too widespread to be in danger of extinction, they agree that not enough yew is available in the wild to meet the demand for the drug.

The Coeur d'Alene nursery, along with nurseries in California and Washington, got involved in the yew project this fall so Forest Service staff members could gather bark and root cuttings before snowfall.

The effort in Coeur d'Alene is threefold, Myers said.

First, the nursery is sending bark to the National Cancer Institute for evaluation of taxol levels. Also, it is sending samples to a Forest Service laboratory in California to evaluate each plant's genetic makeup and look for variations.

Finally, root cuttings collected in Idaho and Montana are being propagated at the Couer d'Alene nursery.