Nature’s medicine chest

Nature has proved a lucrative source for many drugs

From deep-sea vents to the plant-choked jungles of Brazil and Malaysia, scientists are scouring the globe in search of the next natural product to cure some of our most intractable ills. Nature is a treasure trove of useful chemicals, and today’s pharmaceutical companies are hunting for life-saving agents in animals, plants, fungi and bacteria.

Indeed, nearly half of all drugs were originally derived from natural sources. For instance, the most widely used breast cancer drug, taxol, was developed from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. An important cancer drug, vincristine, was discovered in the rosy periwinkle, native to Madagascar. Aggrastat, which inhibits blood clotting, is based on the venom of the saw-scaled viper from Africa.

Bioprospecting or biopiracy?

The industry has a long history of bioprospecting – hunting for natural drugs in exotic locations. One argument in favour of maintaining the Earth’s biodiversity is that medically useful products may exist in as-yet-undiscovered organisms.

A good starting point is often material already thought to have healing powers, often through its use in indigenous medicine. Some prefer the term ‘biopiracy’ to describe this ‘borrowing’ of native knowledge, as indigenous people may not benefit from the commercial development of pharmaceutical products.

Recently, profit-sharing schemes have been set up. Most notably, the Nagoya Protocol, which after several years of negotiations, was recently adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity. It aims to ensure that compensation is awarded to the countries and relevant indigenous communities where genetic resources are found, not only for the use of the resource but also for their native knowledge.

Lead image:

Daniel Sjostrom/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Ecology and environment, Medicine
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development