NA­TURE’S MEDICINE CAB­I­NET

Guru Magazine - - Contents - JAMES CREWDSON

We last saw James Crewdson in the woods hug­ging trees and say­ing “Yeah man, na­ture’s got, like, all the heal­ing power you need, dude!” Per­haps he’s be­come a bit car­ried away with his search to dis­cover na­ture’s hid­den medicines. Join his ex­pe­di­tion on page 25.

For as long as there has been disease, peo­ple have looked to na­ture to find cures for their ills. Whether it was Aztec doc­tors us­ing tree roots to cure stom­ach aches or an­cient Chi­nese prac­ti­tion­ers us­ing sea­horses to cure kid­ney prob­lems, the nat­u­ral world has al­ways of­fered doc­tors plenty to put in their medicine bag. To­day, even in cut­ting-edge re­search fa­cil­i­ties, the out­door lab­o­ra­tory of na­ture is still a gold­mine for im­por­tant drugs. Let us now go on a jour­ney into the wild – to dis­cover na­ture’s hid­den heal­ers…

A walk in the scrub­lands

If you hap­pened to be strolling through the scrub­lands of south-western Amer­ica on a spring morn­ing, you might be lucky enough to meet a two foot (60cm) long lizard called a glia mon­ster. This ven­omous lizard is an ugly beast but it’s not dan­ger­ous. (It’s too slow-mov­ing to catch a hu­man.) Its saliva, how­ever, con­tains sub­stances that have the power to fight disease. Move over Harry Pot­ter fans, this dragon spit is for real: Glia mon­ster saliva con­tains a sub­stance called ex­endin-4, a com­pound that can be used to treat di­a­betes. This chem­i­cal is very sim­i­lar to a hor­mone ( GLP-1) re­leased in hu­mans when food is bro­ken down. It has been used to pro­duce the di­a­betes drug ex­e­natide – a mod­ern medicine that causes weight loss and helps con­trol in­sulin blood lev­els. But the heal­ing slob­ber of this re­mark­able lizard doesn’t end there. It also con­tains gi­latide, a chem­i­cal which ap­pears to boost mem­ory and may one day be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Re­lax­ing by the river

As we con­tinue our jour­ney, we saunter along an English river­bank in June. The wil­low tree is there, in all its green splen­dour. In the bark of this ma­jes­tic tree, there is a chem­i­cal called sal­i­cylic acid, the main com­po­nent of a chem­i­cal best known to us as as­pirin. This is one of the most im­por­tant drugs avail­able to­day, and is used in pain relief and stroke preven­tion. Some­times the old­est reme­dies are the best: ev­ery year over 100 bil­lion as­pirin tablets are swal­lowed. As­pirin was made into medicine in 1897 but plants have also made more re­cent con­tri­bu­tions too – al­though to dis­cover th­ese we must

travel fur­ther afield.

A trip to the trop­ics

You would prob­a­bly ask for a sec­ond opin­ion if your doc­tor gave you some Mada­gas­can rosy peri­win­kle, but this plant has made a huge con­tri­bu­tion to­wards the treat­ment of childhood leukaemia. With pretty pink flow­ers, it is a short shrub that grows in the rain­for­est. You wouldn’t have to travel far to spot it: the plant is known for its beauty and is used as an or­na­men­tal plant the world over. And it is cer­tainly wor­thy of promi­nence: vin­blas­tine, which is ex­tracted from its leaves, has in­creased the sur­vival rates of childhood leukaemia from 10% to around 95%.

High and low, grubby and clean

It’s not just plants and an­i­mals that have health ben­e­fits – fungi also get in on the act. Fungi are amaz­ingly di­verse or­gan­isms and can sur­vive in places where few other liv­ing things can. Some live in deep sea sed­i­ments, with­stand­ing ex­tremely high pres­sures, while oth­ers live in ar­eas of high tem­per­a­ture or salt con­cen­tra­tions. To live in such a wide range of habi­tats, they have be­come mini-chem­i­cal fac­to­ries, which is ex­tremely use­ful for hu­mans. The shin­ing jewels in the crown of fun­gal con­tri­bu­tions to medicine are an­tibi­otics. From the un­tidy mess of Sir Alexan­der Flem­ing’s lab came an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery that would rev­olu- tionise medicine: a peni­cil­lium mould, left on a dis­carded Petri dish, pro­duced an un­usual sub­stance that ap­peared to kill many dis­ease­caus­ing bac­te­ria. When Flem­ing spot­ted it, he called it ‘mould juice’ for sev­eral months be­fore even­tu­ally chang­ing it to the now fa­mous ‘peni­cillin’. Flem­ing’s peni­cillin her­alded the era of mod­ern an­tibi­otics and en­abled pa­tients with pre­vi­ously un­treat­able dis­eases to make full re­cov­er­ies. To­day, while peni­cillin is used less than be­fore, many of our other an­tibi­otics are also fun­gal in ori­gin.

Into the deep

Re­searchers look ev­ery­where to find the next big drug – and that doesn’t just mean on the land! Some­times they have to don their flip­pers and dive un­der­neath the wa­ter to see what sunken trea­sures may be there. One such trea­sure is Tec­titethya crypta, a large, pale sponge that you could swim past in the shal­low waters off the Caribbean with­out so much as a sec­ond look. This sponge was cru­cial in the de­vel­op­ment of AZT, one of the key break­through drugs in the treat­ment of HIV. Even more un­usual is the Conus mag­nus, a poi­sonous cone snail found mainly in trop­i­cal waters near coral reefs. Its venom has led to the dis­cov­ery of zi­conotide, a pain-killer more pow­er­ful than mor­phine that can be used to treat long-term pain. It is prob­a­bly ap­pro­pri­ate, then, that it is also known as the ‘mag­i­cal cone’.

Fin­ish­ing where we be­gan

Our jour­ney con­cludes where you are stand­ing (or at least where you should be stand­ing – see our Na­ture Guru’s ar­ti­cle on the ben­e­fits of be­ing out­doors). The soil be­neath your feet hides the source of the best-sell­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal agent in his­tory. The big­gest killer world­wide is heart disease and one of the most im­por­tant weapons in our fight against it is the fam­ily of medicine called the ‘statins’. Th­ese com­pounds were dis­cov­ered in a com­mon fun­gus, Aspergillus ter­reus, which lives in soil across the world. Statins have the amaz­ing abil­ity to re­duce the amount of choles­terol in your blood, mean­ing your ar­ter­ies are less likely to be­come clogged up – of­fer­ing pro­tec­tion against heart at­tacks and strokes. They have be­come a cru­cial way of keep­ing many peo­ple healthy. The nat­u­ral world is mag­i­cal and it is be­cause of this magic that the great out­doors has be­come the great phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­turer. From dragon spit to mag­i­cal cones, th­ese won­ders can be found the world over. When you next go for a walk in the great out­doors, look around (and be­neath) you and just think of all the mir­a­cle drugs wait­ing to be un­earthed.

BE­LOW:

peni­cil­lium mould cov­er­ing a man­darin orange.

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