Why plants represent ‘untapped potential’ for innovative drug discovery
Credit: Northeastern University

The field of medicine has come a long way from using heroine as a cough remedy or magnet therapy to improve blood flow. These outdated methods were put to bed decades ago. But there are plenty of ancient medicinal practices that have stood the test of time. In fact, many of the life-saving pharmaceuticals we rely on today are derived from plants first discovered by indigenous communities.

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of traditional plant knowledge. It’s what gave us morphine, aspirin, and ephedrine, to name a few. And there is still untapped potential.

In a paper published on Tuesday in Trends in Biotechnology, Northeastern University doctoral candidate John de la Parra described a new field called ethnophytotechnology. It’s the use of plant biotechnology to improve the plant-based drug discovery pipeline.

“New production, engineering, and analysis methods have made it easier to meet scientific challenges that have confronted traditionally used plant-derived medicines,” said de la Parra, PhD’18, who is earning his doctorate in chemistry. “It is our hope that as the field expands, rich troves of indigenous knowledge can find prominence within innovative drug discovery and production platforms.”

In collaboration with Cassandra Leah Quave, a medical ethnobotanist at Emory University, de la Parra examines the vast opportunities for ethnobotany and ethnophytotechnology to promote new drug discovery and solve health challenges. Here, he and Quave take a deeper dive into their recent paper.

You mentioned that traditional plant knowledge has been the foundation of some important medicines. Could you share some examples?

de la Parra: Plants have given us some of our oldest and most important medicines and there are countless examples, from aspirin to the chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel, crossing cultures across the world. Historically, to practice medicine or pharmacy has usually meant, in some regard, to be a botanist.

An interesting place to start is by looking at diseases that we know existed in the ancient world and still persist today. Take malaria for example. An extract from the bark of the cinchona tree was traditionally used to treat victims of this parasitic disease. Chemists then isolated quinine from this plant and until fairly recently, quinine derivatives were our most important anti-malarial drugs. However, the isolation of this type of single molecule treatment led to the rise of quinine-resistant malaria. Luckily, traditional plant knowledge came to the rescue with artemisinin. This compound was discovered by 2015 Nobel laureate Tu Youyou when she consulted a…