Drugs from Plants

Origins of Drugs from Plants

  • Throughout history, humans have utilised plant-based compounds for their medicinal properties.
  • A significant percentage of modern medicines are derived, either directly or indirectly, from plant sources.
  • Plants produce a range of chemicals known as secondary metabolites which can exhibit pharmacological effects.

Extraction Methods

  • Extraction methods are used to isolate and concentrate the potentially beneficial compounds from plant materials.
  • Common methods include boiling, steaming, or soaking plant material in water or alcohol. The resulting liquid often contains the desired compound.
  • Technological advancements have allowed for more efficient and effective methods of extraction, such as cold pressing and co2 extraction.

Examples of Plant-derived Drugs


  • Found in foxglove plants, digitalis is used in treating heart conditions.
  • This compound strengthens heart contractions and controls heart rate.


  • Initially derived from willow bark, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is used as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent.
  • It works by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for producing prostaglandins, substances which cause inflammation and pain.


  • Derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, paclitaxel is used in chemotherapy treatments.
  • It works by interfering with normal microtubule breakdown during cell division, preventing the cancer cells from dividing and thus stopping their growth.

Advances & Ethical Considerations

  • Given our increasing understanding of plants and their bioactive compounds, the development of new plant-based drugs is a growing field of study.
  • However, the excessive and unsustainable use of plant resources for drug discovery poses ethical considerations related to biodiversity conservation.
  • Ensuring sustainable practices in harvesting, cultivating and producing plant-derived drugs is crucial for both ecological and social reasons.