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Drugs In Our Collective Back Yard

One of my favorite movies is “Medicine Man,” unquestionably an ancient movie because it was released in 1992. Sean Connery plays a scientist who finds a cure for cancer in the Amazon jungle. Some would say this movie sucks: There are no special effects, no car chases and no gunshots every 30 seconds. Yet I think it’s a great movie.

The enemy? The white man. Armed with bulldozers, the white man is busy destroying the richest ecosystem in the universe so he can build a road.

The losers? Indian tribes (granted, a mere bunch of naked savages). And the canopy, which is the upper layer created by tree crowns and which harbors countless unknown plants and animals. Oh, and quite possibly another loser is the elusive cure for cancer.

I won’t tell you where the miracle drug came from. Instead, here is a pop quiz: Name just five drugs derived from plants.

Think about it. You use them all the time!

OK, so here is a short list:

• Surely aspirin was your first guess, right? Remember, salicylic acid comes from the bark of willow leaves or birch bark. A derivative of salicylic acid is acetylsalicylic acid, aka aspirin, which causes less gastric complications than the initial compound.

• How about atropine, the anticholinergic derived from Atropa belladonna?

• Yohimbine, an antagonist for xylazine and detomidine, comes from Pausinystalia yohimbe.

• Theophylline, the bronchodilator, comes various plants including Theobroma cacao.

• Then of course there’s digitalis, the cardiac drug, which comes from Digitalis purpurea.

• Pilocarpine, the parasympathomimetic, used by our elders to fight glaucoma, comes from Pilocarpus jaborandi.

• Codeine, the analgesic and antitussive drug, as well as morphine, both come from Papaver somniferum.

• Clearly, it would be politically incorrect to ask who you sometimes would want to give strychnine to. But let it be said that it comes from Strychnos nux-vomica. Strangely, VPI, the pet insurance company, reports that strychnine is the 10th most common source of pet poisoning reported from 2005 to 2009.

• Vincristine and vinblastine, the chemotherapeutic drugs, come from Catharanthus roseus.

• Chymopapain, a proteolytic drug commonly used by our elders--for example in wound care and abscesses--is derived from Carica papaya.

Of course, this list is far from exhaustive. At least 120 medications are derived from plants. Without them, our pharmacy cabinets would be much less filled and our patients would get much more primitive care.

So what is the connection with the Amazon jungle depicted in “Medicine Man?” It is estimated that over 50 percent of plant species are found in tropical forests such as the Amazon. But there are many others around the globe, such as in:

Africa: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Ghana, Tanzania and the island of Madagascar.

Central and South America: Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Martinique, Paraguay, Peru and Puerto Rico.

Asia: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Sadly, these tropical forests are quickly disappearing. Massive trees are cut down to create pastures for cattle and highways. Deforestation is progressing at alarming rates.

Meanwhile, just like in the movie, scientists are racing against the clock to find the next great revolutionary drug to fight cancer, AIDS and various resistant infections.

Of course we won’t joke about some of our readers’ favorite and daily drug – caffeine – which comes from the seed of a tropical evergreen shrub of the Coffea genus.


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Drugs In Our Collective Back Yard

Some of the most important medicinal ingredients can be found backyards around the world.
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