People range from being too eager or too shy about putting substances in their body. Being skeptics, we know their reasoning can be derived from pretty shitty logic. I have heard homeopathy advocates argue that some substances are safer than something distributed by pharmaceutical companies because it is au naturel! There seems to be a negative connotation about drugs synthesized in labs. However, the general population doesn’t stop to consider where researchers come up with novel drug discovery ideas? How many pharmaceuticals come from naturally existing substances?
Many, many drugs are seeded from natural products. In fact, an entire field is named natural products chemistry as evidence by the American Chemical Society journal dedicated entirely to this field. A large portion of this field is dedicated to drug development. Natural product researchers are actively using substances found all over the earth for drug development ideas.
Let’s take a trip back to the 1920’s. We have all heard the story about Alexander Fleming's serendipitous penicillin discovery. He left bacterial cell cultures in the lab for the weekend and upon his return the bacteria were deceased due to fungus growth. Fortunately, he didn’t trash the entire thing and pursued his discovery. His failed cultures led to the largest class of antibiotics still in existence.
That is the science side of the story. Now let's view this with a wider lens. Fungi have been growing in natural environments for millions of years combating bacteria. They grow on many things such as on trees, food, and fruit with similar functionality. One could even say, that they have evolved to protect other organisms from bacteria.
Of course, penicillin isn’t the only natural product to have medicinal functionality. People are aware of common examples like morphine that is useful for pain management. Less renowned drugs like Taxol, a common cancer treatment, was discovered on the bark of a Pacific yew tree. Scientists search all over the world for new substances that could have valuable medicinal purposes. Nature has been sorting out their own problems longer than we have been here, so it is brilliant to take a cue from them.
People hear about researchers searching Amazon jungles for new drugs, but despite it being one of the most remote places on land it is still reasonably easy to explore. It seems less obvious, but ~2/3 of the world is underwater. One can imagine there are many hidden medicinal treasures below sea level. It is true that scientists have been diving the floors near the Caribbean and Hawaii for years searching for products to isolate and screen. I for damn sure would want to be on a dive trip to look for awesome coral fungi to solve the world’s problems.
I wanted to highlight a scientist whose research I find completely awesome. Professor Bill Baker, at the University of South Florida, is definitely aiming to collect high lying fruit. He is doing his research in the icy waters of Antarctica. His group goes on expeditions to the research bases in the deep south. Once down there, they SCUBA dive to collect sponges. Further, they take their samples back to the lab to isolate natural products on their specimens. One of the natural products they isolated proves to be a possible malaria treatment. How awesome is that?!? Diving for sponges in freezing Antarctic water could turn into a treatment for one of the world's most widespread diseases.
So next time people take the 'this product is natural argument', remind them that many, many of the world's pharmaceuticals are a result of our natural environment.