You wake up to the blaring sound of your alarm. Your head aches from a late night spent studying. You open your medicine cabinet, find a nicely plastered container labeled “aspirin”, and consume a small white pill. Within minutes your headache subsides, and you are ready to head to class. Alleviating your pain is simple. The suffering your ancestors once tried to tirelessly remedy with various herbs is now eliminated by a small white cylinder, whose acquisition requires no more than a trip to the pharmacy and a five-dollar bill. What was once a practice of botany and luck is now a tidy and efficient medical-industrial machine. In fact, the modern industrial production of pills is so alienated from the environmental medicine that preceded it that most people have no idea what sort of environmental resources were used to develop the compounds we now find in our medicine cabinets.
Aspirin first originated as bark from a willow tree (see figure 1), with the earliest records of using willow tree bark to treat pain coming from the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC). Later, in 1838, Raffaele Piria isolated the active compound in willow tree bark, called salicylic acid, which is now used to produce aspirin. While the isolation of this product into pill form widened both its availability and efficacy, it also created a separation between consumers and willow tree bark’s natural environment. Extracting willow bark from a forest allows one to appreciate the startling interconnectedness between human health and the environment. Picking up white pills in a pharmacy blinds consumers from the environmental source of their remedy, mitigating the importance of the environment in sustaining human health.
Figure 1. Willow tree used to create aspirin.
There is ample conversation around the impact of climatic change on our health and the effect of pharmaceutical runoff on the environment. However, there is less attention given to the increasing rift between us, the consumers of medications, and the environment, the source of these medications. Considering that up to 50% of approved drugs between 1982 and 2012 are derived from plants, it is important that a clearer understanding of the environmental roots of current medications is established (Veeresham, 2012). One of the most prominent examples of this is the discovery of vincristine and vinblastine from a pink flowering plant called the Madagascar periwinkle, or Catharanthus roseus (see figure 2). These cancer-fighting drugs inhibit mitotic spindle formation to inhibit cancer cell growth. They have been game-changers, especially in the fight against pediatric cancers, contributing to an increased pediatric leukemia remission rate from 10% in 1960 to 95% in 1997 (Roberson, 2008). Another high-profile example is the alkaloid galantamine. Galantamine is extracted from a delicate, drooping white flower called a snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, and is used to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (see figure 3).
Figure 2. Madagascar periwinkle used to create vinca alkaloids.
Figure 3. Snowdrop used to create galantamine.
The question remains: why is it important that we understand that drugs come from plants? First off, understanding the integral role the environment plays in constructing our modern-day quality of life should motivate us to be better stewards of the environment. Second, some medicinal plants risk extinction, such as the Pacific yew, which is used to produce the anti-cancer drug taxol (Roberson, 2008). While many plant-derived drugs, such as aspirin, are now made synthetically, taxol must still be extracted from Pacific yew tree bark. This creates an ethical issue, since Pacific yew trees are environmentally fragile due to their rapid depletion. For these reasons, it is important that the preservation of these plants is prioritized.
This article is not a call to ditch synthetic pills and catapult ourselves back into the age of chewing willow bark, but rather to call attention to the divide that exists between medicine and its botanical sources. Medicine is only as strong as the environment from which it is derived. We all should have a vested interest in protecting the environment.