Info-Popups all Endings Using Plants for Medicines

Why is the conservation of rainforests and plant biodiversity so important to medicine? The simple answer is because plants contain many chemicals that affect animal cells and body systems. Plants and chemicals extracted from plants have been used to treat human disease and ill-health for thousands of years (probably almost as long as we have been using plants to kill each other).

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) for example, contains the poison of choice for philosophers – just ask Socrates. A small number of leaves or seeds from this plant contain enough coniine (the active drug) to cause death by ‘ascending muscular paralysis’ – where you essentially lose the ability to breathe.

Digitalin on the other hand, is the name given to a group of drugs obtained from the Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) plant. The use of Digitalis extracts to treat a range of heart conditions was first described in the medical literature in 1785 and is considered to be the beginning of modern therapeutics.

Many modern drugs owe their discovery to ancient herbal folk lore. The leaves and bark of the willow tree (400 species within the genus Salix) are mentioned in ancient Sumerian and Egyptian texts as a remedy for aches and fevers. Hippocrates – the father of medicine himself – wrote about its medicinal properties in the 5th century BC and it was a central element in pain relief for many Native American tribes. It wasn’t until 1828 though, that salicin, the active extract from the bark was isolated and eventually in 1897, a synthetically produced version – acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin – was developed.

About 25% of all prescription drugs dispensed annually are originally derived from flowering plants and ferns, with nearly 40% of all drugs dispensed owing their active ingredients to plant based origins.

Modern drug hunters study traditional/indigenous medicinal practices and target the plants they use. By isolating the biologically active chemicals they extract from these plants and testing them back on the medical conditions they are supposed to treat, researchers are able to identify potentially useful drugs. This is how the hypertension drug Reserpine was identified and extracted from Indian Snakeroot (Rauvolia serpentina).

Alternatively, drug companies study plants that are closely related to those that have demonstrated medicinal properties. The chemicals produced by a plant are designed to promote their survival. It makes evolutionary sense that closely related plants might have similar biochemical traits.

Mass screening programs are run by pharmaceutical companies to identify the next big drug. Plant extracts are often tested for their activity against cancer cells or enzyme activity. Taxol –derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) – and used to treat ovarian, breast and other cancers – was discovered during a plant screening program in the US that involved tens of thousands of plant species over many years. Promising extracts are then further tested – often for many years and at great cost – in the hope of obtaining a new prescription drug.

With two thirds of the world’s plant species located in tropical rainforests – it is highly likely that many more life-saving drugs will be found there, provided we can preserve these ecosystems and the plants they contain. Less than 10% of these plants though have been tested for their medical potential and with climate change and deforestation, we are losing these plants forever before we can even identify and name them, let alone test them for their medicinal properties.

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