Naturally influential

Written by Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

In the Middle Ages, people concocted mixtures of wormwood, mint and balm to treat stomach problems and applied rubs made of rose and lavender to alleviate chronic migraines. Considering how far medicine has come since, many people assume that modern science is the driving force behind today’s powerful drugs. It may surprise them to learn that he world around us is still the source of most of our modern medicines.

For the past 30 years, only 1/3 of the drugs approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration were created in labs, based on human resourcefulness alone. The remaining 2/3 were given to us, more or less, by nature. Although most of these medicines were made safer and in some cases more potent with the help of human ingenuity, most of what makes them medically useful comes directly from mother nature.

A perfect example of nature’s influence in medicine is the work of Charles Berde, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. Berde is currently collaborating with Chilean scientists, attempting to develop a new painkiller made from saxitoxin (sak’-si-tok-sin), a small, natural protein found in algae.

Excessive algae build up in the ocean can be toxic for sea life and humans

In large doses saxitoxin is poisonous. For this reason shellfish harvested in waters with an abundance of toxin producing algae (or harmful algal bloom) can be dangerous. When people eat shellfish with high levels of saxitoxin they may experience a burning or numbness in their lips. In extreme cases they can develop fatigue, fever and possibly even die. But in smaller doses, Dr. Berde has found that after a little tweaking to reduce it’s toxicity, saxitoxin may have value as an effective, non opiate-based painkiller. In order for someone to feel pain, say after their thumb is hit with a hammer, the nerves in the thumb have to transmit a signal from the thumb to the brain. Saxitoxin dulls pain sensation because it blocks the pain signal in the nerves by interfering with the movement of sodium across cell membranes.

Outside the realm of pain medications, nature has given the medical community much to be thankful for. For infectious diseases, most of the antibiotics we have, for conditions as mild as ear infections or as life threatening as blood infections, are natural products made from fungi or bacteria. Beta blockers (which treat high blood pressure as well as certain heart arrhythmias), insulin and metformin (which help control  blood sugar of people with diabetes), and albuterol and steroids (which are used to treat asthma) all come directly from humans or from sources in nature like plant extracts.

Aaron Bernstein, MD,MPH

Nature, of course, has much more to offer us than new medicines. Insights into how our bodies work–knowledge that would be unattainable without the help that nature provides us–could eventually prove to be more valuable to human well-being than the drugs themselves. For example, in the process of studying saxitoxin as a pain killer, scientists have learned about how pain gets transmitted to the brain. Because of this more detailed understanding, doctors and researchers may find even better ways to treat pain in the future.

Thanks to insights made possible by nature’s assistance, medicine has come a long way from the days of wormwood, mint and balm concoctions. And given recent history, especially when it comes to the discovery of new drugs, the future progress of medicine shows every sign of continuing to benefit from nature’s input.