Nature has been providing medicines to treat our diseases and relieve our suffering for many thousands of years. Despite great advances in rational drug design, in which new medicines are synthesized based on knowledge of specific molecular targets, most prescribed medicines used in industrialized countries today still are derived from, or patterned after, natural compounds from plants, animals, and microbes. This is particularly true for drugs that treat infections and cancers.
Because other organisms also need to protect themselves against infections and cancers and other diseases people get; because Nature has been making biologically active compounds for close to 4 billion years (and conducting its own “clinical trials” on these compounds, which, if they didn’t work, are no longer around); and because of the remarkable uniformity of all living things, particularly at the genetic and molecular level, plants, animals, and microbes contain virtually an endless supply of potential medicines for human diseases.
Some compounds from plants that have been particularly important for human medicine include: morphine from the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum), aspirin from the White Willow Tree (Salix alba vulgaris), and the anticoagulant coumadin from spoiled sweet clover (Melilotus species). Tropical plants such as the Madagascar, or Rosy, Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) have yielded vinblastine (which has revolutionized the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, turning a disease that was once uniformly fatal into one that can now be totally cured in many patients) and vincristine (which has done the same for acute childhood leukemia).
Medicines from animals include: the ACE inhibitors (which are among the most effective medicines known for treating high blood pressure) from the Pit Viper (Bothrops jararaca), and AZT (azidothymidine) used in the treatment of HIV-AIDS, patterned after compounds made by the marine sponge Cryptotethya crypta.
Microbes have given us nearly all of our antibiotics such as penicillin, the cholesterol-lowering statins, and rapamycin (also called sirolimus), which is used to coat arterial stents so that the cells lining the arteries opened by the stents do not divide and re-clog them.
Rutgers Gardens, New Brunswick, NJ -USA (Anna Strumillo) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0