Pharmacognosy: The forgotten truth patients need to hear

I was chatting with my cousin the other day. She has small-cell cervical cancer, stage 3B.

She mentioned that a friend was suggesting she try some alternative “natural product” instead of her standard cancer-treatment regimen because “chemotherapy and radiotherapy are too harsh.”

Feigning calmness, I asked her if she took the friend’s advice.

She said no. “Why would I want gentle treatment when the disease I’m fighting is aggressive?” she asked.

So what was she taking now, I asked.


“Well,” I told her, “you can tell your friend that you took her advice to go natural. Paclitaxel is derived from a natural source too, just like her ‘alternative’ product.”

Nature vs Pharma

In recent years, we have seen a growing dichotomy being nurtured between “natural” and “pharmaceutical” products.

The picture being painted is that these two are separate from each other — like they were antonyms or something.

Natural is the label given to products derived from natural sources. They’re supposed to be kinder to the body and have fewer adverse effects.

Pharmaceutical is the label given to medication developed and produced by pharmaceutical companies. It’s the label applied to products that have been officially recognized and approved by the FDA as therapeutic substances suitable for human use.

The world has apparently forgotten that most of the so-called pharmaceutical drugs we use today are actually derived from natural sources.

It is high time we reacquainted the world with the wonders of pharmacognosy.

Nature-based Pharma

Pharmacognosy is the study of medicines made from plants and other natural sources. It is the antithesis of the false nature-versus-pharma dichotomy.

Chemotherapy is a common soapbox for the “natural products” debate. I’ve seen so many articles shared on Facebook that send this message: “Chemotherapy is so harsh. Natural products are just as effective but safer.”

But what if cancer patients realized that, in fact, many chemotherapy drugs are actually derived from nature?

  • Paclitaxel comes from bark of the Pacific Yew tree.
  • Vincristine and vinblastine are from the Madagascar periwinkle.
  • Topothecan and irinothecan are from a tree known in China as the Happy Tree.
  • Etoposide and teniposide are from the Mayapple plant.
  • Cytarabine and gemcitabine came from a sea sponge.

When natural products are carefully studied, we end up with game-changing medicines such as

  • Quinine (eg, Qualaquin®), an anti-malaria drug made from the bark of the cinchona tree;
  • Cephalosporins (eg, Zeftera®), powerful antibiotics made from Acremonium fungi;
  • Zidovudine (eg, Retrovir®), an antiretroviral drug used in HIV infection treatment, made from marine sponges;
  • and many others: cholesterol-lowering lovastatin, immunosuppressing tacrolimus, therapeutic mycotoxins, etc.

All of these medications are FDA-approved and totally pharmaceutical. But because they are derived from natural sources, they are natural as well.

When people realize that many natural substances are in fact used by pharma to manufacture conventional medicines, they begin to understand that the real difference between “pharmaceutical” and “natural” is that the former is supported by clinical research.

Conversely, when clinical research shows that a substance isn’t effective or safe enough to be used in treating human diseases, it does not get developed and marketed as a pharmaceutical drug.

But you might still see it in the market, labeled as something else.

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