Monday, October 5, 2015

2015 Nobel Prize highlights importance of botanical chemistry

1600 years ago, a Chinese physician wrote in a book called "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve", that soaking a plant now known as Artemisia annua  in water, and then drinking the juice, can reduce fever. This text was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century by a then obscure Chinese pharmacologist, Tu Youyou. Ms Tu was working on a secret project to find a novel cure for malaria. She found that artemisia extract was highly efficient in combating the malaria parasite. Her work led to the development of the drug artemisinin, which is now widely used in malaria treatment in Africa.  Ms. Tu's role in the discovery of artemisinin remained hidden from the West for most of her life. But now at the age of 85, she has been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work
An illustration describing Ms Tu's work displayed during the press conference announcing the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize. Linked from and The Telegraph: Nobel Prize for Chinese traditional medicine expert who developed malaria cure. Photo: AFP

This reminds us that many of our medicines have their roots in botany. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates described a bitter substance, now known to be salicylic acid, from willow bark that could ease aches and reduce fevers. Other cultures in the ancient Middle East also used willow bark as a medicine, as did Native Americans. Centuries later, we know salicylic acid as the chemical precursor for aspirin (which is acetylsalicylic acid), and salicylic acid itself is a key ingredient in many modern anti-acne face washes.

The Pacific Yew is a conifer found primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Its thin scaly back would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact that it contains a chemical called paclitaxel, or more commonly known as the chemotherapy drug Taxol. Taxol was discovered in the mid 1960s as part of a large-scale program to identify natural products which might be used against cancer. In 1992 Taxol was approved by the FDA for use in fighting breast, ovarian and lung (and a few other) cancers.

And what would life be like without the opium poppy, the source of morphine or codeine. The medicinal (and likely recreational) uses of opium poppy have been known for thousands of years. And the increasingly legal uses of cannabinoids in western medical protocols cannot be ignored.

These are prime examples of how a deep knowledge of botanical diversity and chemistry can lead to incredibly important applications.

Unfortunately, education towards and development of expertise in these fields over the past decades were not a priority for many universities, where plant biology outside of the study of model organisms was looked down upon. At Tel Aviv University we've recognized the importance of botanical pharmacology. As Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, together with the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, we have initiated a search for a botanical pharmacologist whose position will be divided between our two Faculties, between plant biology and pharmacology. Such interdisciplinary research is critical for exploiting the medicinal potential hidden in plants.