Imagine a cave man, worse for wear after tussling with a mastodon. Having no corner drugstore, he staggers to a plant reputed to relieve pain. Perhaps he chews the leaves or bark, or steeps them in water and drinks the infusion. Perhaps he mixes a mud compress to keep his wound from festering. Such techniques for the medicinal uses of natural products would eventually be described on a 1,500 BC Egyptian papyrus and in ancient texts from China and Sumeria.
Throughout the ages and across continents, people have turned to natural sources of medicine. This practice continued as chemists learned to extract medicinal compounds from natural sources in the development of drugs, laying the foundation for the modern pharmaceutical industry. The first of these drugs were for the conquest of pain and infection, many of which became clinical breakthroughs almost immediately. Today, about 70% of our drugs for pain and infection are either derived from natural products or are inspired by them, including some introduced in the last decade. Together, analgesics and antibiotics have dramatically improved quality of life and significantly extended the human lifespan.
Studying the natural compounds that led to these drugs allows modern scientists to determine how the older drugs work and modify them to enhance their functional design and effectiveness – and to find entirely new classes of medically active compounds in nature. That is important, because we badly need newer and better drugs to solve our current crises with antibioticresistant “superbugs,” to prevent pandemic viral infections, and to ease intractable pain in cancer patients, for example.
In this article, we begin by looking at the first commercial drugs to be developed, the pain medications morphine and aspirin and their related compounds. Then we follow the discovery of antibiotics to more recent findings about our own cells and their interactions with the microbial world. Turning to the elucidation of the mechanisms of the first commercial pain medications, which occurred many years following their development, we discuss how those investigations led to new treatments for addiction and alcoholism – and heart disease. From there we consider the most recent discoveries in the natural world, including in the deep ocean and extremely hot, cold, or otherwise inhospitable environments.
http://www.faseb.org/Portals/0/PDFs/opa/natural products article FINAL.pdf