We are living in the world of scientific wonders. Medicinal science, for instance, has achieved much in treatment as well as in preventive measures. The science of treatment is as old as humanity. Signs of the medicinal use of different plants, herbs, and shrubs are found in the remains of ancient extinct traditions. Advancement in medicinal science has reached the peak and there is yet more to come. Among the marvelous achievements of medicinal science, the invention of life-saving drugs is a great blessing. Lifesaving drugs are the medicines used at the time of life threat of a patient. You might be surprised how many medicines were actually derived from nature. Many know that aspirin is derived from willow bark, but few realize just how many other medications are derived from plants. Here is a list of top 5 plants that led to helpful and lifesaving medicine.
Indian hemp and Pilocarpine
Pilocarpus jaborandi (Indian hemp), was used to treat a variety of illnesses but most commonly for fever. It was found that the leaves could trigger profuse sweating, salivation, and urination as a way to rid the body of toxins. In the 1870s, P. jaborandi was incorporated into Western medicine and became a popular treatment for intestinal problems, lung problems, fever, skin issues, kidney disease, and edema in Europe. Surprisingly, the plant was also found to be an effective antidote to deadly nightshade poisoning.
By 1875, Pilocarpine was isolated from the plant and found to be the main culprit behind its effects. This was discovered almost simultaneously by two different researchers, one in France and one in England. Pilocarpine was soon found to be an extremely effective treatment for Glaucoma by decreasing the pressure in the eye. Even today, it remains a very popular and widely used treatment for glaucoma as well as a means to induce perspiration when trying to diagnose cystic fibrosis. Laboratories still haven’t been able to fully replicate and synthesize the Pilocarpine found in P. jaborandi. This plant remains one of Brazil’s largest and most important exports.
The Pacific Yew Tree and Paclitaxel
In 1955, the National Cancer Institute created the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center (CCNSC) in hopes of finding new cancer treatments. In the 1960s, the CCNSC looked to partner with the United States Department of Agriculture to search for these cures within nature. Over the course of about 20 years, 30,000 natural plant and animal products were tested. Out of the 30,000 samples, one was found to be pivotal in the treatment of cancer. Two researchers, Dr. Monroe Wall and Mansukh C. Wani, discovered that the extracts from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, were toxic to tumor cells. Later, it was found that the toxic compound is actually synthesized by a fungus within the bark. Thus, the new chemotherapy drug known as Paclitaxel was born.
Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) is common to treat breast and ovarian cancer. Medically, it works by blocking microtubules, which basically stops the cancer cells from being able to divide and grow. Since its discovery, paclitaxel has become a big part of cancer treatment and saved millions of lives.
Cannabis Sativa and Dronabinol
The Cannabis sativa plant has been part of the recent controversy regarding the legality of Marijuana. While marijuana is most commonly associated with the cannabis plant, there is another extremely useful pharmaceutical that has come from it. Many know the symptoms of marijuana intoxication, including red eyes, dilated pupils, dry mouth, increased appetite, slowed reaction time, euphoria, dizziness, shallow breathing, and increased heart rate. While some of these symptoms seem unappealing, the medical community has found others to be useful in treating certain populations of patients.
The drug Dronabinol has been created as a synthetic form of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to utilize some of marijuana’s side effects. There are various uses for the drug, but most commonly, it is used as an appetite stimulant for patients with AIDS and as an antiemetic in patients receiving chemotherapy.
Podophyllum Peltatum and Etoposide
The Native Americans have recorded using the plant Podophyllum peltatum as a purgative, anti-parasitic, and cathartic hundreds of years before its usefulness was officially recognized. Interestingly, the Penobscot people of Maine even appeared to be using it to treat “cancer.” The Iroquois additionally used it to treat snakebites and as a suicide agent.
Hartmann F. Stähelin was a Swiss pharmacologist who had made large contributions to the cancer therapy field. He had a particular proclivity for biomedical sciences and was recruited to lead the pharmacology department in Basel in hopes of researching cancer and immunology in 1955. Once in Basel, he led the discovery of various antitumor agents from P. peltatum. Initially considered by chemists to be “dirt,” Stähelin noticed that a particular extract from the Podophyllum plant had interesting properties. After purifying this compound, it was found to be a new class of antitumor medication.
Named Etoposide, the medication works by stopping the tumor cells’ ability to divide. It blocks a specific enzyme that cells need in order to replicate. Therefore, rapidly dividing cells such as cancer cells are heavily affected. Currently, Etoposide is used to treat various cancers, especially that of the lung.
Meadow Saffron and Colchicine
The use of the plant Colchicum autumnale, or meadow saffron, for medical problems has been recorded as far back as 1500 BC on the ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus for rheumatism and swelling. Since then, C. autumnale has been a treatment for other illnesses such as gout, familial Mediterranean fever, Behcet’s disease, and pericarditis. It works in a similar way to Taxol, as it blocks microtubules.
As early as the first century AD, C. autumnale was being described as a treatment for gout by Pedanius Dioscorides. Gout is a type of arthritis characterized by needle-shaped crystals building up in the joints, causing sudden pain attacks, swelling, and redness. Others, such as Alexander of Tralles, Persian physician Avicenna, and Ambroise Paré have also recommended C. autumnale as a treatment for gout. Colchicine itself was isolated from C. autumnale in 1820 by French chemists P.S. Pelletier and J.B. Caventou. It was later purified by P.L. Geiger in 1833.
Despite its long history of being effective, colchicine actually had no FDA-approved prescribing information, dosage, recommendation, or drug interaction warnings until as recently as 2009.
These were the top 5 plants that led to helpful and lifesaving medicine. Missed out on any other plants that are helpful? If yes, share your thoughts in the comment section below.