Natural molecules as medicine

Modern drug development is barely a century old. Regardless of the methods of modern synthetic chemistry, nature has a trump card that we will never be able to reach – millions of years of evolution. Natural compounds formed as an emergency in the ecological-metabolic wars of organisms suddenly enter into a new focus. From the study of ethnobotany of remote tribes to the isolation of compounds of exotic marine organisms – the entire planet is one big drug factory. And we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

Nature is a source of diversity of chemical compounds

Today, phytotherapy is seen as obsolete, outdated and as something that modern medicine has left behind. There is no doubt that modern pharmacology possesses a far more powerful, efficient and diverse collection of medicines than a hundred or a thousand years ago. Nevertheless, we should be meticulous in everything and see where we draw new compounds or new drugs from. Most antidiabetics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, drugs for heart conditions, anticancer drugs and even planetary-known drugs like statins, originate in nature or are inspired by natural molecules. By this we do not mean classic herbal remedies such as a milk thistle or ginkgo, but common remedies in pharmacies and hospitals.

Why natural compounds

Many authors today emphasize how natural chemical compounds originated in evolutionary interaction. In other words, nature has had millions of years of time to create various compounds for various purposes, from being food, stimulus, means for communication and influence on other species, including poison. Modern synthetic chemistry had only about a century to do everything that nature had far more time for. There are two main reasons why pharmaceutical research and the pharmaceutical industry reach for natural compounds:

1. Because nature makes synthesis of extremely complicated molecules, the production of which would be very expensive by synthetic procedures. Typical examples of this are some antibiotics and cytostatics. The picture shows paclitaxel, which has an extremely complex structure and its total synthesis as a drug would be very expensive. The natural pathway of synthesis involves enzyme processes that are more effective than synthetic processes.

2. Because nature had a lot of time to design e.g. an ideal antibiotic, for which we simply do not have time. This is especially true for large molecules of complex srukture that carry a large so-called chemical information. The best such example is the antibiotic erythromycin, an antibiotic isolated from Saccharopolyspora erythraea.


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