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IUPAC report- Natural and synthetic substances

In a recent article published in Pure and Applied Chemistry, the IUPAC Subcommittee on Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Development reached the conclusion that natural substances and synthetic compounds are complementary as sources for new drugs. Concerns over the implications of natural vs. synthetic compounds are raised in topics ranging from herbal supplements and medicinal agents to chemical warfare.

Natural compounds typically have complex structures not easily obtained by synthetic chemistry. Often however, the natural compound needs to be modified synthetically to enhance its desirable medicinal properties, or to reduce its toxic properties. Many useful medicinal agents are obtained by total synthesis. A chemist interested in developing a new drug for a particular disease has the option of starting with a naturally occurring substance or with more basic raw materials.

Anti-cancer agents are a particular therapeutic class for which natural products have been important. Many of these compounds, such as paclitaxel and adriamycin, were originally obtained from plant or microbial sources. Because of their complex structures, they are difficult to make synthetically and are still obtained from natural sources.

Yet numerous drugs have been improved over the years through modification by synthetic chemists. Antibiotics such as penicillin and erythromycin are obtained from natural substances and modified synthetically to generate the desired effects.

Other important agents in use today are made by total synthesis, such as the quinolone antibacterial, ciprofloxacin. All drugs used to treat HIV and herpes infections are made synthetically; the use of natural products for the treatment of viral diseases has had very limited success.

Herbal medicines are a special class of drugs. They are usually complex, multi-component mixtures that are not well-characterized or understood. The conditions under which the plant is grown a
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Contact: Laura Abernathy
laura@iupac.org
919-485-8702
International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
18-Apr-2003


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