Top 5 Medicines Made From Plants

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This may surprise you, but being a plant is hard work. It’s not all about sunbaking and soaking up the rain. Plants are constantly fighting off pests, defending themselves from fungi and protecting their themselves from pesky plant eating animals.

Nature’s own amazing drug lab has been concocting chemical weapons to fight their battles for millions of years. And in more recent times we’ve also realised that many of these compounds can be useful for our survival too.

Today I’m counting down my favourite medicines that were originally derived from plants.  

#5: Paclitaxel

Arthur Barclay was an American Botanist who would often go on excursions to collect plant samples. In 1962 he went to Washington state and collected bark from the Pacific Yew tree. There was no special reason for him to collect this bark. It was just one of the thousands of plants that the National Cancer Institute was testing for anticancer activity.

A couple of year later, researchers realised that extracts from the Pacific Yew were toxic to human cells. Fast forward to 1979 and Dr Susan Horowitz found that that Paclitaxel stops cancer cell growth by stopping cell division. Today, Paclitaxel is a commonly used chemotherapy agent. It’s used in lung cancer as well as breast cancer treatment.

#4: Morphine

Next up is the poppy of the plant Papaver Somniferum. In the early 1800s, a German pharmacist called Friedrich Sertürner was so curious about the effects of the opium poppy, that he started experimenting on stray dogs and then on himself.

Because this extract made him feel so sleepy, he named it Morphium after the god of dreams, Morpheus. Shortly afterwards, Friedrich became addicted to the drug and wrote: “I consider it my duty to attract attention to the terrible effects of this new substance called Morphium in order that calamity may be averted”.

Even though Morphine has the potential to be addictive if used irresponsibly, it’s still an important pain killer when other pain killers just don’t work. For example it’s used in the emergency department, after surgery and also in palliative care.

There have been attempts to produce opium derivatives that aren’t as addictive as Morphine, but this has only been partially effective. When used responsibly, Morphine and other opium derivatives can be an effective and very powerful tool against the suffering caused by severe pain.

#3: Artemisinin

For more than 2000 years, Chinese herbalists were using the herb Artemisia Annua in the treatment of Malaria. But was only in 1972 when a Chinese scientist called Tu Youyou discovered the malaria fighting compound and called it Artemisinin.

This was an incredibly timely finding because Malaria was quickly becoming resistant to an older drug called Chloroquine. Today, Artemisinin based therapies are used as first line treatment where Chloroquine is no longer effective.

#2: Aspirin

Modern day Aspirin has its roots in ancient medicines derived from the Willow tree. The ancient Egyptians mentioned using willow and myrtle to treat pain and fever. Hippocrates, often referred to as the Father of Medicine, suggested drinking willow bark tea to relieve pain during childbirth.

In the early 1800s, multiple chemists extracted this mysterious pain and fever curing compound from the willow bark. In 1828, the German chemist Johann Buchner called this compound Salicin. But extraction from the willow bark was difficult and wasteful. Eventually the combined work of multiple chemists led to the formulation of modern day Aspirin – acetylsalicylic acid. A compound that can be produced synthetically, is less bitter and has less stomach irritation.

#1: Metformin

And finally we have the French Iliac, also known as Galega Officinalis. It contains a substance called Guanidine, which was found in 1918 to have blood sugar lowering effects.

Multiple guanidine derivatives were developed like Buformin and Phenformin. These were really good at lowering blood sugar, but had to be taken off the market because of a severe side effect called lactic acidosis. The spotlight fell onto Metformin, which wasn’t the most potent derivative, but had less side effects than its cousins.

Metformin is now one of the first line treatments for type 2 diabetes and helps millions of people control their blood sugar levels.

Humans and Nature

If you walk into a hospital, it seems as though place the is completely artificial and devoid of nature. Sterile surgical theatres, intimidating scanning equipment and geometrically shaped pills. But if you look below the surface, there’s a really intriguing relationship between humans and nature. Hundreds of modern day medicines have been inspired by nature.

But it’s not that nature has all the answers. Take the pacific yew for example. There are many compounds that are toxic to humans. But it’s only if you extract the right one and dose it carefully, that you can develop a cancer curing drug.

So nature provides us with clues. But it takes the ingenuity and curiosity of many researchers to put these clues together and see beyond what’s obvious. And it’s not just in medicine. In many scientific disciplines, it’s when human intellect converges with nature that truly astounding discoveries are made.

A recent game-changing discovery inspired by nature is the CRISPR gene editing system. Researchers looked at the immune system of bacteria and found an enzyme called Cas9 which can make specific gene edits. If you’d like to learn more about where CRISPR technology may take us in the future, click on the video on your right. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you in the next one.

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Certain illustrations adapted from and (brgfx / Freepik)


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