Plant Based Drugs and Medicines

By Leslie Taylor – Raintree Nutrition Inc. Oct 13, 2000

Today there are at least 120 distinct chemical substances derived from plants that are considered as important drugs currently in use in one or more countries in the world. These chemical substances are shown in the table below. Several of the drugs sold today are simple synthetic modifications or copies of the naturally obtained substances.

The original plant substance/chemical name is shown under the “Drug” column rather than the finished patented drug name. For example, many years ago a plant chemical was discovered in a tropical plant, Cephaelis ipecacuanha, and the chemical was named emetine. A drug was developed from this plant chemical called Ipecac which was used for many years to induce vomiting mostly if someone accidently swallowed a poisonous or harmful substance. Ipecac can still be found in pharmacies in many third world countries but has been mostly replaced by other drugs in the U.S. Another example of this is the plant chemical name Taxol shown in the drug column below.

The name Taxol is the name of the plant chemical orginally discovered in the plant. A pharmaceutical company copied this chemical and patented a drug named Paclitaxel™ which is used in various types of tumors today in the U.S. and many other countries.The 120 substances shown below are sold as drugs worldwide but not in all countries. Some European countries regulate herbal sustances and products differently than in the United States. Many European countries, including Germany, regulate herbal products as drugs and pharmaceutical companies prepare plant based drugs simply by extracting out the active chemicals from the plants.

A good example is the plant substance/drug shown below, Cynarin. Cynarin is a plant chemical found in the common artichoke (Cynara scolymus). In Germany, a cynarin drug is sold for liver problems and hypertension which is simply this one chemical extracted from the artichoke plant or a plant extract which has been standardized to contain a specific milligram amount of this one chemical. These products are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, sold in pharmacies in Germany and a doctor’s prescription is required to purchase them.

In the United States artichoke extracts are available as natural products and sold in health food stores. Some products are even standardized to contain a specific amount of the cynarin chemical. You can purchase these natural and standardized extracts over the counter without a prescription and you could not go to a pharmacy in the U.S. and obtain a cynarin drug with a prescription.

Another similar example is the plant chemical, silymarin, shown in the drug column below. Silymarin is a chemical found in the Milk Thistle plant and natural Milk Thistle extracts standarized to contain specific amounts of silymarin are found in just about every health food store in the US. However in Germany, silymarin drugs and Milk Thistle standardized extracts are sold only in pharmacies and require a doctor’s prescription for liver problems.

Some of the drug/chemicals shown below are still sold as plant based drugs requiring the processing of the actual plant material. Others have been chemically copied/synthesized by laboratories and no plant materials are used in the manufacture of the drug. A good example of this is the plant chemical Quinine which was discovered in a rainforest tree (Cinchona ledgeriana) over 100 years ago.

For many years the quinine chemical was extracted from the bark of this tree and processed into pills to treat malaria. Then a scientist was able to synthesize or copy this plant alkaloid into a chemical drug without using the original tree bark for manufacturing the drug. Today, all quinine drugs sold are manufactured chemically without the use of any tree bark.

However, another chemical in the tree called quinidine which was found to be useful for various heart conditions couldn’t be completely copied in the laboratory and the tree bark is still harvested and used to extract this plant chemical from it. Quinidine extracted from the bark is still used today to produce quinidine based drugs. In the U.S. there are four patented brand name cardiodrugs sold in pharmacies containing bark-extracted quinidine: Cardioquin™, Quinaglute Dura-tabs™, Quinidex Extentabs™ and Quin-Release™.

The following table below will help you begin your research on drugs made from plants. We don’t have the time or resources to provide a full comprehensive list of all patented drug names and herbal drugs sold in other countries. The chemical/drug names and plant names will give you enough to start on to continue your research on important plant based drugs and medicines.

Drug/Chemical Action/Clinical Use Plant Source
Acetyldigoxin Cardiotonic Digitalis lanata
Adoniside Cardiotonic Adonis vernalis
Aescin Anti-inflammatory Aesculus hippocastanum
Aesculetin Anti-dysentery Frazinus rhychophylla
Agrimophol Anthelmintic Agrimonia supatoria
Ajmalicine Circulatory Disorders Rauvolfia sepentina
Allantoin Vulnerary Several plants
Allyl isothiocyanate Rubefacient Brassica nigra
Anabesine Skeletal muscle relaxant Anabasis sphylla
Andrographolide Baccillary dysentery Andrographis paniculata
Anisodamine Anticholinergic Anisodus tanguticus
Anisodine Anticholinergic Anisodus tanguticus
Arecoline Anthelmintic Areca catechu
Asiaticoside Vulnerary Centella asiatica
Atropine Anticholinergic Atropa belladonna
Benzyl benzoate Scabicide Several plants
Berberine Bacillary dysentery Berberis vulgaris
Bergenin Antitussive Ardisia japonica
Betulinic acid Anticancerous Betula alba
Borneol Antipyretic, analgesic, antiinflammatory Several plants
Bromelain Anti-inflammatory, proteolytic Ananas comosus
Caffeine CNS stimulant Camellia sinensis
Camphor Rubefacient Cinnamomum camphora
Camptothecin Anticancerous Camptotheca acuminata
(+)-Catechin Haemostatic Potentilla fragarioides
Chymopapain Proteolytic, mucolytic Carica papaya
Cissampeline Skeletal muscle relaxant Cissampelos pareira
Cocaine Local anaesthetic Erythroxylum coca
Codeine Analgesic, antitussive Papaver somniferum
Colchiceine amide Antitumor agent Colchicum autumnale
Colchicine Antitumor agent, anti-gout Colchicum autumnale
Convallatoxin Cardiotonic Convallaria majalis
Curcumin Choleretic Curcuma longa
Cynarin Choleretic Cynara scolymus
Danthron Laxative Cassia species
Demecolcine Antitumor agent Colchicum autumnale
Deserpidine Antihypertensive, tranquillizer Rauvolfia canescens
Deslanoside Cardiotonic Digitalis lanata
L-Dopa Anti-parkinsonism Mucuna sp
Digitalin Cardiotonic Digitalis purpurea
Digitoxin Cardiotonic Digitalis purpurea
Digoxin Cardiotonic Digitalis purpurea
Emetine Amoebicide, emetic Cephaelis ipecacuanha
Ephedrine Sympathomimetic, antihistamine Ephedra sinica
Etoposide Antitumor agent Podophyllum peltatum
Galanthamine Cholinesterase inhibitor Lycoris squamigera
Gitalin Cardiotonic Digitalis purpurea
Glaucarubin Amoebicide Simarouba glauca
Glaucine Antitussive Glaucium flavum
Glasiovine Antidepressant Octea glaziovii
Glycyrrhizin Sweetener, Addison’s disease Glycyrrhiza glabra
Gossypol Male contraceptive Gossypium species
Hemsleyadin Bacillary dysentery Hemsleya amabilis
Hesperidin Capillary fragility Citrus species
Hydrastine Hemostatic, astringent Hydrastis canadensis
Hyoscyamine Anticholinergic Hyoscyamus niger
Irinotecan Anticancer, antitumor agent Camptotheca acuminata
Kaibic acud Ascaricide Digenea simplex
Kawain Tranquillizer Piper methysticum
Kheltin Bronchodilator Ammi visaga
Lanatosides A, B, C Cardiotonic Digitalis lanata
Lapachol Anticancer, antitumor Tabebuia sp.
a-Lobeline Smoking deterrant, respiratory stimulant Lobelia inflata
Menthol Rubefacient Mentha species
Methyl salicylate Rubefacient Gaultheria procumbens
Monocrotaline Antitumor agent (topical) Crotalaria sessiliflora
Morphine Analgesic Papaver somniferum
Neoandrographolide Dysentery Andrographis paniculata
Nicotine Insecticide Nicotiana tabacum
Nordihydroguaiaretic acid Antioxidant Larrea divaricata
Noscapine Antitussive Papaver somniferum
Ouabain Cardiotonic Strophanthus gratus
Pachycarpine Oxytocic Sophora pschycarpa
Palmatine Antipyretic, detoxicant Coptis japonica
Papain Proteolytic, mucolytic Carica papaya
Papavarine Smooth muscle relaxant Papaver somniferum
Phyllodulcin Sweetner Hydrangea macrophylla
Physostigmine Cholinesterase Inhibitor Physostigma venenosum
Picrotoxin Analeptic Anamirta cocculus
Pilocarpine Parasympathomimetic Pilocarpus jaborandi
Pinitol Expectorant Several plants
Podophyllotoxin Antitumor anticancer agent Podophyllum peltatum
Protoveratrines A, B Antihypertensives Veratrum album
Pseudoephredrine* Sympathomimetic Ephedra sinica
Pseudoephedrine, nor- Sympathomimetic Ephedra sinica
Quinidine Antiarrhythmic Cinchona ledgeriana
Quinine Antimalarial, antipyretic Cinchona ledgeriana
Qulsqualic acid Anthelmintic Quisqualis indica
Rescinnamine Antihypertensive, tranquillizer Rauvolfia serpentina
Reserpine Antihypertensive, tranquillizer Rauvolfia serpentina
Rhomitoxin Antihypertensive, tranquillizer Rhododendron molle
Rorifone Antitussive Rorippa indica
Rotenone Piscicide, Insecticide Lonchocarpus nicou
Rotundine Analagesic, sedative, traquillizer Stephania sinica
Rutin Capillary fragility Citrus species
Salicin Analgesic Salix alba
Sanguinarine Dental plaque inhibitor Sanguinaria canadensis
Santonin Ascaricide Artemisia maritma
Scillarin A Cardiotonic Urginea maritima
Scopolamine Sedative Datura species
Sennosides A, B Laxative Cassia species
Silymarin Antihepatotoxic Silybum marianum
Sparteine Oxytocic Cytisus scoparius
Stevioside Sweetner Stevia rebaudiana
Strychnine CNS stimulant Strychnos nux-vomica
Taxol Antitumor agent Taxus brevifolia
Teniposide Antitumor agent Podophyllum peltatum
a-Tetrahydrocannabinol(THC) Antiemetic, decrease occular tension Cannabis sativa
Tetrahydropalmatine Analgesic, sedative, traquillizer Corydalis ambigua
Tetrandrine Antihypertensive Stephania tetrandra
Theobromine Diuretic, vasodilator Theobroma cacao
Theophylline Diuretic, brochodilator Theobroma cacao and others
Thymol Antifungal (topical) Thymus vulgaris
Topotecan Antitumor, anticancer agent Camptotheca acuminata
Trichosanthin Abortifacient Trichosanthes kirilowii
Tubocurarine Skeletal muscle relaxant Chondodendron tomentosum
Valapotriates Sedative Valeriana officinalis
Vasicine Cerebral stimulant Vinca minor
Vinblastine Antitumor, Antileukemic agent Catharanthus roseus
Vincristine Antitumor, Antileukemic agent Catharanthus roseus
Yohimbine Aphrodisiac Pausinystalia yohimbe
Yuanhuacine Abortifacient Daphne genkwa
Yuanhuadine Abortifacient Daphne genkwa


‘Searching for the cures’

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has several ongoing collabrative programs which screen plants for the possiblility of new drugs and active plant chemicals for cancer and AIDS/HIV.

Because well over 50 percent of the estimated 250,000 plant species found on earth come from tropical forests, NCI concentrates on these regions. Plants have been collected from the African countries of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Ghana, Madagascar, and Tanzania. Collections are now concentrated in Madagascar (one of the most rapidly dissappearing rainforest regions in the world), and collaborative programs have been established in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In Central and South America, samples have been collected from Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Martinique, Paraguay, Peru, and Puerto Rico. The NCI has established collaborative programs in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama. Southeast Asian collections have been performed in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Collaborative programs have been established in Bangladesh, China, Korea, and Pakistan. In each country, NCI contractors work in close collaboration with local botanical institutions.

These collabrative programs include the following:

The South American Organization for Anticancer Drug Development (SOAD) in Porto Alegre, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz-FIOCRUZ in Rio de Janeiro, and the University Paulista in Sao Paulo investigate plants from Brazil.

The Institute of Biological Diversity (INBio) in Costa Rica studies insects and plants.

The Institute of Chemistry, National University of Mexico, studies medicinal plants.

The Kunming Institute of Botany in China studies Chinese medicinal plants.

The Korean Research Institute of Chemical Technology examines Korean medicinal plants.

The H.E.J. Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi, studies Pakistani plants.

The University of Dhaka in Bangladesh studies plants and microbes.

University of Panama studies Panamanian medicinal plants.

Brigham Young University (Dr. Paul Cox) studies Polynesian medicinal plants.

Tel Aviv University (Dr. Yoel Kashman) studies Red Sea marine invertebrates.

The New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research studies marine organisms.

The Cancer Research Center at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow studies Russian medicinal plants.

The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association and the University of Zimbabwe study Zimbabwean medicinal plants.

The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research studies South African plants.

Thus far seven plant-derived anticancer drugs have received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for commercial production:

Taxol / PaclitaxelA chemical discovered in the Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia) is now the first drug of choice in several tumorous cancers including Breast Cancer.

VinblastineA chemical discovered in the Madagascar Periwinkle in the 1950s. Vinblastine is the first drug of choice in many forms of leukemia and since the 1950’s it has increased the survival rate of childhood leukemias by 80%

VincristineAnother antileukemic drug discovered in the Madagascar periwinkle.

TopotecanHas been approved by the FDA for the treatment of ovarian and small cell lung cancers. It is currently in clinical trials, either alone or in combination with other anticancer drugs, for several types of cancer. Topotecan is a analog (a synthesized chemical) of a plant alkaloid discovered in the Chinese tree species, Camptotheca acuminata

IrinotecanAnother chemical analog which has been developed from yet another plant alkaloid discovered in the same tree Camptotheca acuminata. It has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer. It is currently in clinical trials for a variety of other cancers.

EtoposideA semisynthetic derivative of a plant chemical epipodophyllotoxin discovered in the Mayapple plant family (Podophyllum peltatum)

TeniposideAnother semisynthetic derivative of a plant chemical discovered in the Mayapple plant family (Podophyllum peltatum).

Since 1986, over 40,000 plant samples have been screened, but thus far only five chemicals showing significant activity against AIDS have been isolated. Three are currently in preclinical development. Before being considered for clinical trials in humans, these agents must show tolerable levels of toxicity in several animal models. For AIDS, three agents are presently in preclinical or early clinical development. The following are plants and chemicals which are still under research for cancer and AIDS/HIV:

(+)-Calanolide A and (-)-Calanolide B (costatolide) are isolated from Calophyllum lanigerum and Calophyllum teysmanii, respectively, trees found in Sarawak, Malaysia. Both these agents are licensed to Medichem, Inc., Chicago, which is developing them in collaboration with the Sarawak State Government through a joint company, Sarawak Medichem Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (+)-Calanolide A is currently in early clinical trials in the United States.

Conocurovone, isolated from the shrub species, Conospermum incurvum (saltbush), found in Western Australia, has been licensed for development to AMRAD, a company based in Victoria, Australia.

Michellamine B, from the leaves of Ancistrocladus korupensis, a vine found in the Korup rainforest region of southwest Cameroon, has undergone extensive preclinical study, but is considered too toxic for advancement to clinical trials.

Prostratin, isolated from the wood of Homolanthus nutans, a tree found in Western Samoa, has been placed on low priority, largely due to its association with a class of compounds shown to be tumor promoters.

A tree native to China–Camptotheca acuminata–is the source of four promising anticancer drugs, two of which have been approved by the FDA and are described above. The other two chemicals still under research include:

9AC (9-aminocamptothecin): Currently in clinical trials for several types of cancer, including ovarian and stomach cancers and T-cell lymphoma.

Camptothecin: While no clinical trials are being performed in the United States, trials are ongoing in China.

Homoharringtonine from the Chinese tree, Cephalotaxus harringtonia are in early clinical trials.

Perillyl alcohol, and flavopiridol, a totally synthetic compound based on a flavone isolated from Dysoxylum binectiferum are in early clinical trials.

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