Ethnopharmacology and drug discovery

Document Type

Book chapter

Publication details

Heinrich, M 2010, 'Ethnopharmacology and drug discovery', in R Verpoorte (ed.), Comprehensive natural products II: chemistry and biology, Development & modification of bioactivity; vol. 3, Elsevier, Oxford, pp. 351-381.

Publisher's version of this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-008045382-8.00666-3


Drug discovery and development (very often unknowingly) is based on traditional and local knowledge about a species’ medical use or toxicological effects (both desired and undesired effects). The list of compounds ultimately derived from such knowledge is very long indeed and includes morphine, codeine, and aspirin to name just a few but also drugs licensed relatively recently like galanthamine and artemisinine. Here I review this link and – using examples of new drugs currently under development preclinically or in clinical trials – discuss how such new drugs have been ‘discovered’, or more precisely developed into a clinically used medication.

Field-based ethnopharmacological studies are the most essential basis for such drug development efforts. Such studies have a multitude of theoretical and applied goals and in fact only very few are in any way directly linked with projects in the area of drug discovery. One of the core tasks of ethnopharmacologists is to ascertain that such traditional knowledge is safe-guarded and remains an integral and appreciated part of a culture and that – if commercial products are developed from such knowledge – both the material and immaterial benefits are distributed equitably.

Preclinical (i.e., pharmacological and phytochemical) research has been conducted on numerous plants using a multitude of pharmacological targets. Such knowledge is not only an element of drug development, but also contributes to our understanding of the effects of such local and traditional medicines.

Some recent examples of clinical developments of drug leads into new medicines highlight the potential of such knowledge-based drug development programs. Many new drug leads are ‘poster children’ of ethnopharmacology-driven drug development programs. Lastly, some extracts that are complex mixtures of active and inactive constituents have been developed and are used now clinically.

Ethnopharmacology and drug development can be understood only if a truly multidisciplinary approach is taken, and this is one of the most exciting and promising challenges of the field – it requires a dialogue not only between disciplines but also between cultures.