The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.
(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)
Nature’s Medicine Cabinet
Guest Author, Molly Terhune, Program Assistant, Center for Global Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
We know that traditional healers in all cultures use plants, minerals, and other natural substances for their medicinal properties. But did you know that many modern pharmaceutical drugs contain chemical compounds derived from nature?
For thousands of years mankind has searched the environment for natural remedies. However, it was not until the 1800s that developments in science allowed the actual bioactive compounds to be isolated from their natural sources. Many of these compounds are still in use today. One example is digoxin, which is isolated from foxglove, a flowering plant. Digoxin is used to treat heart failure and irregular heart rhythms, and is a component of name brand drugs like Lanoxin™ and Digitek ™.
Because of successes like digoxin, researchers from the National Cancer Institute have been screening plants for decades to seek out active chemicals. Remarkably, three-quarters of all cancer drugs are derived from biological sources in the environment. Rosy periwinkle, a plant from Madagascar has yielded two powerful chemotherapy drugs called vinblastine and vincristine, which are used to treat cancers of the blood. In recent years, researchers at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the University of Colorado identified two compounds in milk thistle that they believe will kill tumors. One compound directly targets cancer cells, while the other has been shown to stop tumor growth by preventing blood vessels from supplying the tumor with nutrients.
When a new compound is identified, biochemical screening is conducted to extract, purify, and characterize the active components that may have pharmaceutical importance. Then, pharmaceutical companies attempt to make the chemicals synthetically rather than source them from nature. This allows drug developers to maximize potency, and improve absorption, distribution, and elimination from the body. Although this process is long and expensive, it leads to higher-quality compounds, making a more effective and safer drug.
The drug Captopril provides a good example of this process. In 1970, a research team from the Royal College of Surgeons of England discovered that the venom of the South American lancehead viper (Bothrops jararaca) causes an immediate drop in blood pressure, making it the ideal candidate for treating hypertension. Researchers spent the next decade in a laboratory studying the compound. First, they created a synthetic version of the active compound found in the venom. Next, they made small adjustments to help it work more efficiently in the body. Finally, after successful clinical trials, the finished drug product was approved by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States in 1981, eleven years after its discovery. In 1996 the drug became widely available as a generic medicine and is still in use today.
Today there are at least 120 drugs on the market have been inspired by nature, and there are likely many more compounds we have yet to discover. However, time and money are obstacles in this search. A 2014 report published by Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development points out that it costs on average $2.6 billion to develop a prescription drug that will be approved for release to the public. Though costly to develop, scientists will continue to look to the environment for natural sources of drugs in an effort to bring health to all.