Synthetic chemistry has been able to duplicate successfully the medicinal compounds in many plants, including:
- Quinine: Used to treat malaria and is synthesized from cinchona bark.
- Digoxin: Used to treat heart conditions and is derived from foxglove.
- Diacetylmorphine: This drug is better known by its trade name, "heroin." Heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for the naturally occurring morphine found in poppy plants.
- Aspirin: Also known as acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin is an artificial reproduction of salicin, which is found in willow bark.
- Taxol: An antitumor drug derived from the bark of the Pacific yew.
Modern scientists use several methods to convert medicinal plants into drugs. The most basic is simple extraction, where essential oils are removed from a plant and then concentrated. This can be very unreliable and inaccurate, though, and making modern drugs directly from plants is unrealistically difficult and expensive. The preferred method is for chemists to produce a synthetic compound that matches the molecular structure of the medicinal compound found in a plant.
Scientists use two general methods in order to try out plant-based treatment ideas. One method is to take the old fashioned approach: They simply go out into the wild and gather samples from all manner of plant life and trees. Then they carry the samples back to their laboratories and begin testing them. A second way scientists approach the testing of new plants is to pay attention to word of mouth -- in this case, word of mouth that has often been handed down over generations from very old cultures. For example, if a particular folk remedy has people swearing up and down that it works, scientists are more willing to explore whatever substances are called for in the remedy to see if the treatment really works and also if they can synthesize the active ingredient.
Everyone's favorite multi-purpose drug, aspirin, is a prime example of a drug now synthesized that was derived from a plant. It goes back all the way to the ancient Greeks, who used willow bark to treat fever symptoms. The bark and leaves of that tree contain a compound called salicin, which would one day be synthesized into acetylsalicylic acid, today's scientific name for aspirin [source: Bayer].
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