How we borrow from nature to create medicinal substances

Throughout its history, humankind has looked toward the natural world. People used various plants and herbal substances in their immediate environment to alleviate diseases and ailments: they made different therapeutic remedies such as teas, tonics, and ointments. Some modern medicines have been obtained from nature by isolating plant, animal, or microorganism materials, while we still produce some of them from isolated natural raw materials. Read about some of the examples where nature designed the solution to our medicinal needs.

Growing plants for growing pains

We have used the opium poppy (L. Papaver somniferum) in medicine for thousands of years: its latex or opium, which contains several therapeutic alkaloids, is used to relieve pain. Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1803, followed by other alkaloids. Today, opium alkaloids are used as an analgesic, antitussive (cough suppressant), and antispasmodic agents (smooth muscle relaxant).

The indigenous tribes of the Amazonian rainforest used curare as arrow poison to catch their prey. Curare is a mixture of herbal extracts from the plant genera Strychnos (Loganiaceae) and Chondodendron (Menispermaceae). The blend contains the toxic alkaloid tubocurarine, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes voluntary muscles.

Imitating nature to create life-changing treatments

The drug paclitaxel, which has an antitumor effect, was discovered as part of a significant scientific project. It was initially isolated from the Pacific yew’s bark (L. Taxus brevifolia), which is native to the Pacific Northwest of North America. A tiny amount of paclitaxel is present in the bark: 2000 – 3000 trees are required to obtain 1 kg of paclitaxel.

It thus seemed almost impossible to isolate a sufficient amount of the substance to conduct preclinical and clinical trials. Today, however, the drug is obtained semi-synthetically from European species of yews. In 1992, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Taxol (contains paclitaxel as the active substance) to treat ovarian, breast, and lung cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

A rare trail to a much-needed remedy

In the 1950s, pharmaceutical companies researched hundreds of plant species used in traditional medicine. Their research also studied the plants found on the island of Madagascar, 80 % of which are endemic species. One of the plants they studied was the Madagascar periwinkle (L. Catharanthus roseus), which has traditionally been used to treat diabetes. However, studies have shown a significant white blood cell reduction in rats tested for its effects. The alkaloids vinblastine and vincristine, which do not have an antidiabetic effect but act on murine leukaemia cells, were soon isolated. To obtain just 1 g of vincristine requires 500 kg of herbal material.

The Madagascar periwinkle is therefore also known as the million-dollar pink flower. The medicinal products Velban and Oncovin (contain vincristine as the active substance) were registered in 1961 and 1963 to treat Hodgkin’s disease, acute lymphocytic leukaemia, lymphoma, cervical and breast cancer.

We cannot synthesize some plants

Podophyllotoxin was isolated from the rhizome and stem of the plants Podophyllum peltatum L. and Podophyllum hexandrum Royle. The Indians used the powdered drug as an anthelmintic (against intestinal parasites) and emetic (to cause vomiting), and today it is used for the treatment of genital warts. As no economically acceptable synthesis exists, the drug is still produced from raw plant materials, so the plant population in Tibet and the Himalayas has drastically decreased.

Quest for the nature of things

In the last 20 years, experts have collected more than 30,000 marine organisms for study purposes. Although many isolated compounds have shown a promising therapeutic effect, only one has be-come the subject of pharmaceutical interest: in 1987, a rare sponge called Discodermia dissoluta was discovered in the Bahamas, whose extract showed pronounced biological activity with an anticancer, antibacterial, antifungal, and immunosuppressive effect.

The substance discodermolide was isolated from the sponge. More than 3000 kg of dried sea sponge is required to produce 60 g of a pure substance, which is more than the world’s total sponge population. Fortunately, chemical synthesis of this complex molecule has been performed, which took 18 months, and clinical trials are underway.

The use of plants to prevent and treat various physiological conditions and diseases goes far back in human history.. As many as 60 % of antitumor drugs that are in use today are derived from secondary metabolites of plants, microorganisms, and marine organisms or produced by synthesis modelled on natural substances. If you would like to learn more about how you can register a medicinal product (including herbal medicinal products), medical device, cosmetic product, or dietary supplement our professionals at Marti Farm can advise you on how to market your product.

Ružica Štimac,  MPharm / Registration Associate

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Short company name: Marti Farm Ltd.
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Office: Planinska ulica 13, HR 10000 Zagreb
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