Dr. Tristi Muir

On a recent trip to Brazil, I immersed myself in an exploration of the richly diverse Amazonian rain forest. I was awed to learn that so many of the plants that filled this paradise have been used throughout human history to make medicines, poisons, hallucinogens, rubber, building materials and so much more. While it makes sense that native people use the plants to support their lives, it is astonishing to learn that approximately 70 percent of the new drugs introduced in our country in the past 25 years are derived from nature.

Despite the expanding sophistication of bioengineering, Mother Nature retains the crown as the world’s greatest drug engineer. The indigenous healers in the Northwest Amazon have used more than1,300 species of plants for medicinal purposes. Today, pharmacologists and ethnobotanists work with native shamans to identify potential drugs for further development. A study of the plants used by local healers in Samoa found that 86 percent were biologically active in humans.

Plants are the starting point for many of the drugs in common use throughout the world, including birth control pills, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and chemotherapy treatments. Since antiquity, women have been searching for control over reproduction.

In ancient Egypt, women concocted a suppository of cotton, dates, honey and acacia. Acacia has in fact been found to have spermicidal properties. In the mid-20th century, the Mexican yam was discovered to be a source of the hormones that, when chemically altered, produce norethindrone, the component of the first birth control pill. Aspirin has been produced since the1890s but willow bark, the plant that produces it, has been used for thousands of years: Egyptian papyri reveal the medicinal use of willow. Aspirin, ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs decrease inflammation and provide nonaddictive pain relief.

NSAIDs are particularly helpful throughout a woman’s life cycle. They relieve menstrual cramping, decrease menstrual bleeding, treat headache and body aches and reduce postoperative pain. Indomethacin is occasionally used to treat or prevent preterm labor. As women age, NSAIDs are commonly used to treat arthritis and generalized aches and pains.

Many chemotherapy drugs are derived from plants: the Madagascar periwinkle, the Pacific Yew tree and the Chinese ornamental tree. Methotrexate, a commonly used treatment, had its humble beginning in the isolation of folic acid from spinach in 1941.

Folic acid is a vitamin crucial for DNA metabolism and the spinach extract served as a chemical template to produce synthetic folic acid. In 1949, this led to anti-folates, such as methotrexate, which blocks the action of folic acid and the blocked estrogen-induced proliferation of the endometrium. This made it ideal for treating ectopic pregnancy and the gynecological cancer choriocarcinoma. It has been saving the lives of women for more than 50 years.

The rain forest is a rich reservoir for the potential development of new medicines. In recognition, many pharmaceutical companies have agreed to give a portion of the royalties on successful drugs to the country of origin for conservation of the rain forests. Preserving biodiversity not only saves an ecosystem, but also saves the future of medicine.