We’ve all heard the myth about dogs eating grass to make themselves sick. We now have apomorphine and xylazine for our furry friends, but where did all of our medications come from? Surely they weren’t all synthesised in a lab. With a webinar on Stelfonta, a new MCT drug, recently being published on The Webinar Vet, I had a realisation that I really don’t know which of our routine drugs are from plants. So, strap in for an exploration of medicine and what plant-life can teach us.

How long have we been using medication?

It’s no secret that we’ve been using plants as medication since far in the past. There’s been evidence from the Paeleolithic age of medications being used. Shamans, medicine women and witches are just some of the names used for people through history who have used the plants available to create tinctures and teas to solve all manner of predicaments.

Thousands of years ago through to today, humans are and always have been curious. We want to know how the body works, why it works, and what is happening when things go wrong. In 2600BC approximately 200 diseases and treatments were described by the Egyptian Imhotep. We rarely stop there, we want to know how to make it better when it stops working. The earliest prescriptions are Sumerian, from about 2112BC to 2004BC, which is a fun thing to think about when you’re writing your next prescription of Synulox. You’re essentially participating in a line of tradition thousands of years old which has grown and morphed from engraving clay tablets to sending a prescription label to the back of the clinic for sticking on.

The everyday things that we use are constantly evolving as well, from the stethoscope in 1816 by Rene Leannec all the way to Isoflurane in 1979. As we’ve seen, developments aren’t just a thing of the past. Stelfonta recently got licensed in the UK and Europe for treatment of mastocytoma in dogs. Derived from a shrub in the rainforest of northern Queensland (Fontainea picrosperma), it really shows that there’s no end to the discoveries that we’re making.

“I am a physician, I can heal,
I carry around all (healing) herbs, I drive away disease,
I gird myself with the leather bag containing health-giving incantations.
I carry around texts which bring recovery,
I give cures to mankind.
My pure dressing alleviates the wound,
My soft bandage relieves the sick.”

-(Lambert, “Gula Hymn,” p. 121)

Plant-Derived Medication

It seems that we’ve searched in every species, phylum, and genus available to find what is helpful for us. Fruits, plants, seeds and spices. Fungi, moulds, and even bacteria have all been investigated and isolated, developed into mixtures and tinctures that can cure our ills. From drugs like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol which some of us use daily to weekly, all the way to digitoxin from foxglove and atropine from belladonna. The plant world has such an incredible range of healing properties and toxins, it’s difficult to understand how we managed to get it right.

I’m sure there was an element of trial and error to figure out which plants are linked with which symptoms. Too many prunes leading to resolution of constipation? Brilliant, we’ll add that to the list of what to eat when we’re a bit gummed up. That’s because of the sorbitol, by the way. Even toxic plants are being refined every day. For pain relief, opioids (first discovered 300 B.C.) are being refined and recreated every day to give us more options for analgesia.

Venom: Killer or Healer?

It’s not just plants that we’ve harvested, we’re also using animal products in a lot of products that we may not be aware of. The gelatin that we see in capsule shells and stabilisers in some vaccines are derived from beef or pork. Heparin, which we use on a more or less daily basis in our blood tubes, is prepared from pigs.

Venom, something that we think of as life-taking, has been used in ways that are actually life-giving. Brazilian pit viper venom was transformed into Captopril, an ACE-inhibitor that’s used for hypertension. It’s one of the very first animal-derived medications. Much in the same way that chocolate is toxic to dogs but not humans, Ziconitide – derived from cone snails – is a painkiller in humans but lethal to fish.

All in All

I think we tend to forget that we are literally surrounded by medication in forms that are just waiting to be distilled. Technology is evolving, allowing us to search increasingly deeper. We’ve started looking at how our genes respond to drugs and how that varies between people, instead of just looking at what drugs we can use. We’re constantly developing and growing our pharmacopoeia. The really wonderful thing about it? Our investigations are because we want to help people. We want to help others, we want to help ourselves, and combined with our very human curiosity and determination, we come up with solutions. It’s pretty magical, if you think about it.

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity. ”
― Hippocrates

“One of the great challenges in healthcare technology is that medicine is at once an enormous business and an exquisitely human endeavor; it requires the ruthless efficiency of the modern manufacturing plant and the gentle hand-holding of the parish priest; it is about science, but also about art; it is eminently quantifiable and yet stubbornly not.”

— Robert M. Wachter (The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age)

Do you know of any drugs that you use that are based on plants or animals?

Come and join our Facebook page for discussions like these, unique behind-the-scenes chats with our speakers, and interesting cases!

Links and Further Reading

Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health in Ancient Mesopotamia 

Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs

Famous examples of drugs that came from plants. 

VetTimes article on Stelfonta