A natural product is a chemical compound or substance produced by a living organism—that is, found in nature. In the broadest sense, natural products include any substance produced by life. Natural products can also be prepared by chemical synthesis (both semisynthesis and total synthesis) and have played a central role in the development of the field of organic chemistry by providing challenging synthetic targets. The term natural product has also been extended for commercial purposes to refer to cosmetics, dietary supplements, and foods produced from natural sources without added artificial ingredients.
Within the field of organic chemistry, the definition of natural products is usually restricted to mean purified organic compounds isolated from natural sources that are produced by the pathways of primary or secondary metabolism. Within the field of medicinal chemistry, the definition is often further restricted to secondary metabolites. Secondary metabolites are not essential for survival, but nevertheless provide organisms that produce them an evolutionary advantage. Many secondary metabolites are cytotoxic and have been selected and optimized through evolution for use as “chemical warfare” agents against prey, predators, and competing organisms.
Natural products sometimes have therapeutic benefit as traditional medicines for treating diseases, yielding knowledge to derive active components as lead compounds for drug discovery. Although natural products have inspired numerous U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs, drug development from natural sources has received declining attention by pharmaceutical companies, partly due to unreliable access and supply, intellectual property concerns, seasonal or environmental variability of composition, and loss of sources due to rising extinction rates.
Indigenous peoples and ancient civilizations experimented with various plant and animal parts to determine what effect they might have. Through trial and error in isolated cases, traditional healers or shamans found some sources to provide therapeutic effect, representing knowledge of a crude drug that was passed down through generations in such practices as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Extracts of some natural products led to modern discovery of their active ingredients and eventually to the development of new drugs.
Modern natural product-derived drugs
A large number of currently prescribed drugs have been either directly derived from or inspired by natural products. A few representative examples are listed below.
Some of the oldest natural product based drugs are analgesics. The bark of the willow tree has been known from antiquity to have pain relieving properties. This is due to presence of the natural product salicin which in turn may be hydrolyzed into salicylic acid. A synthetic derivative acetylsalicylic acid better known as aspirin is a widely used pain reliever. Its mechanism of action is inhibition of the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme. Another notable example is opium is extracted from the latex from Papaver somniferous (a flowering poppy plant). The most potent narcotic component of opium is the alkaloid morphine which acts as an opioid receptor agonist. A more recent example is the N-type calcium channel blocker ziconotide analgesic which is based on a cyclic peptide cone snail toxin (ω-conotoxin MVIIA) from the species Conus magus.
A significant number of anti-infectives are based on natural products. The first antibiotic to be discovered, penicillin, was isolated from the mold Penicillium. Penicillin and related beta lactams work by inhibiting DD-transpeptidase enzyme that is required by bacteria to cross link peptidoglycan to form the cell wall.
Several natural product drugs target tubulin, which is a component of the cytoskeleton. These include the tubulin polymerization inhibitor colchicine isolated from the Colchicum autumnale (autumn crocus flowering plant), which is used to treat gout. Colchicine is biosynthesized from the amino acids phenylalanine and tryptophan. Paclitaxel, in contrast, is a tubulin polymerization stabilizer and is used as a chemotherapeutic drug. Paclitaxel is based on the terpenoid natural product taxol, which is isolated from Taxus brevifolia (the pacific yew tree).
A class of drugs widely used to lower cholesterol are the HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, for example atorvastatin. These were developed from mevastatin, a polyketide produced by the fungus Penicillium citrinum. Finally, a number natural product drugs are used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure. These include the angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor captopril. Captopril is based on the peptidic bradykinin potentiating factor isolated from venom of the Brazilian arrowhead viper (Bothrops jararaca).
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