How medicinal plants gave rise to pharmaceutical drugs

Before tablets, capsules and syrup-based medicines, there were only plants. Herbal remedies and medicinal plants were the only methods of treating ailments, yet they were quite effective. These sorts of remedies are commonly referred to as traditional medicine – a practise that has been around for thousands of years and still remains largely unchanged today.

Medicinal plants are still used to treat various illnesses and ailments. Various cultures around the world still have a place for traditional medicine in modern society, including South Africa, India, China and New Zealand. The effectiveness of plants to cure illnesses and promote better well-being is what led to the development of pharmaceutical drugs.

How does modern medicine differ from herbal remedies?

Modern medicines usually take the form of a powdered tablet, dissolvable capsule or liquid syrups. These products have made a significant contribution to human health, vitality and rehabilitation. The global pharmaceutical industry is absolutely astonishing; it is worth an estimated US$1.3-trillion (~R21.7-trillion). However, none of these drugs would have existed without medicinal plants.

For millennia, herbal remedies have been tried, tested and proven to work – especially for small ailments such as stomach aches, muscle cramps, coughs, flu and sore throats. The roots, stems and leaves of plants are often eaten raw or dried and turned into a tea. The chemical compounds in the plants are absorbed by the body and used to fight infections, bacteria, viruses and inflammation.

These traditional remedies are still prevalent throughout the world. “Long [traditional] use of many herbal remedies and experiences, passed on from generation to generation, has brought about reliance by the people on herbal remedies,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a dissertation titled Traditional herbal remedies for primary health care. “At present, the use of medicinal plants for health benefits is increasing worldwide,” adds the WHO.

Medicinal plants gave rise to modern pharmaceutical products

Over time, people started to isolate these medicinal compounds within plants and extract them. The pure chemical compounds were then mixed with chalk and other non-reactive substances to form early versions of pharmaceutical medicines. An article written by Professor Ciddi Veeresham, titled Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs, states that “Up to 50% [of] the approved drugs during the last 30 years are from either directly or indirectly from natural products.” 

“To date, 35 000 to 70 000 plant species have been screened for their medicinal use,” writes Veeresham. The uses of these plants vary – some can reduce inflammation and swelling, others can minimise pain. Plants have even been used to treat more serious diseases, such as cancer. For almost every pharmaceutical drug available, there is a plant-based alternative. The medicinal compounds may not be as concentrated in plants as they are in pharmaceutical drugs, but the plants also contain a number of other beneficial chemicals that have advantages for health when ingested.

Examples of plant-based pharmaceutical medicines

The WHO has printed a publication that outlines common illnesses that can be cured by medicinal plants. This publication also lists a number of modern medicines that have been developed from plants and herbal remedies. There are thousands of examples, but here are just a few:

  • Aspirin – One of the most well-known medications, Aspirin was developed from the white willow (Salix alba). It was the first semi-synthetic medicine to be developed in 1899. Aspirin is prescribed to minimise pain, treat fever, and reduce inflammation.
  • Penicillin – Penicillin was the first form of antibiotic to be discovered. It is derived from a mold called Penicillium chrysogenum, which is able to kill bacteria. The active ingredient that achieves this was isolated from the mold by Alexander Fleming in 1928. However, it wasn’t until 1940 that penicillin was mass-produced and sold as a pharmaceutical product.
  • Morphine – One of the most renowned modern medicines for its pain relief. Morphine is used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. It is found naturally in a number of plants and animals, including humans. It acts on the central nervous system to decrease pain. Morphine was developed from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).
  • Artemisinin – Artemisinin and its semisynthetic derivatives are a group of drugs used to treat malaria. It is developed from the African wormwood plant (Artemisia afra) and is used in tropical malaria regions around the world. Artemisinin was developed in 1972 by Tu Youyou, who was the co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
  • Colchicine – Colchicine is a common medicine used to treat gout. Other uses include the prevention of pericarditis and familial Mediterranean fever. It was developed from meadow saffron (Autumn crocus), which has been used since 1500 BC to treat inflammation and joint swelling.
  • Digoxin – Digoxin (also known as Lanoxin) is a medication used to treat a number of heart conditions. It is most commonly used for atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter and heart failure. Digoxin was developed in 1930 from the foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea). 
  • Paclitaxel – This medicine was developed from the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia) and is prescribed for lung, ovarian and breast cancer. It was first isolated from the tree in 1971 but was only approved for medical use in 1993.
  • Vinca alkaloids – Vinca alkaloids are a set of anti-mitotic and anti-microtubule alkaloid agents that are originally derived from the periwinkle plant (Catharanthus roseus). These compounds, including vinblastine and vincristine, are used in the treatment of leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

These examples show us that medicinal plants have played a vital role in the development of modern medicines. Traditional remedies and plant-based healing still have relevance in modern society. They are able to treat the same ailments and, in many cases, do not produce any harmful side effects. Certain chemicals in a plant have the sole purpose of unifying the other compounds to maximise the medicinal effect. 



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Written by Joshua Oates


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