As a pharmaceutical chemist, I've decided to write a blog about drugs! A subject that is essential to my field of research and, definitely our lives and basic existence.
Uncoated aspirin tablets; Author-Sauligno ; License
Just so you're aware, seven out of ten human medications contain chemical components that originated in nature, usually from bacteria, fungi, and plants. Wonder why?
Well, it's because, unlike more mobile species, plants, fungi, and bacteria are unable to flee when threatened. This has allowed them to develop machinery that produces specialized chemical weapons to defend themselves against predators as well as each other. In fact, the struggle is taking place on the tops of mountains, at the bottoms of seas, and even beneath our feet.
To dissuade hungry worms, soil bacteria create chemicals that interfere with invertebrates' nerve impulses. Other bacteria in the dirt fight fungi by producing a substance that causes fungal cells to leak, resulting in their death. In exchange, one group of fungi produces a substance that breaks down the cell walls of their bacterial foes.
The antibiotic penicillin is a natural product derived from the fungus Penicillium rubens ; Source ; License
All of these chemicals have been appropriated for human use. Many of us have undoubtedly used penicillin to treat a bacterial infection. And if we, or more likely our pets, have had a run-in with parasitic worms, we've very certainly utilized Avermectin medicine! Doctors most often prescribed amphotericin to anyone who had a significant fungal illness. These co-opted pharmaceuticals are among the most effective pathogen-fighting medications available. In other words, nature is constantly conducting pharmacological research and development!
Although "nature's R&D" is merely a series of blind trials that don't always succeed, enough of these experiments have occurred over billions of years to produce an astounding array of powerful weaponry!
The opioid analgesic drug morphine is a natural product derived from the plant Papaver somniferum (a.k.a poppies) ; Source ; License
Nature-based pathogen-fighting medications are just the beginning! Painkillers (morphine and aspirin) have been discovered in poppies and willow trees, as well as an eczema therapy from bacteria (tacrolimus), anti-cancer medicine in pacific yews (pacitaxel), cholesterol medications in fungus (statin), asthma medication from the ephedra plant (albuterol), and many more!
Representative examples of drugs based on natural sources; Author; License
The anticancer drug paclitaxel is a natural product derived from the yew tree ; Source ; License
To conclude, I have some positive news to give, because there are still a lot of species out there that we haven't even found, let alone put to medicinal use! Tens of thousands of species are said to exist in a teaspoon of soil, the majority of which are unknown to science! Each of these creatures produces dozens of defensive chemicals that could one day find their way into our chemical arsenal! As academics and the pharmaceutical industry seek to answer the major challenges that our society faces, there is a lot that may happen. I hope that we can continue to promote human health by developing tailored solutions in discovering new medications to treat diseases.
-Bills, G.F. and Gloer, J.B. (2016) Biologically Active Secondary Metabolites from the Fungi. Microbiology Spectrum 4(6): 6
-Cragg, G.M. and Newman, D.J. (2005) Biodiversity: A continuing source of novel drug leads. Pure and Appled Chemistry 77: 7–24
-Mazid, M., Khan, T.A. and Mohammad, F. (2011) Role of secondary metabolites in defense mechanisms of plants. Biology and Medicine 3(2): 232–249.
-Newman, D.J. and Cragg, G.M. (2016) Natural Products as Sources of New Drugs from 1981 to 2014. Journal of Natural Products 79: 629-661
-O’Brien, J. and Wright, G.D. (2011) An ecological perspective of microbial secondary metabolism. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 22:552–558
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