"If I had one place to go to find medicinal plants, it wouldn't be the forest," said John Richard Stepp, a UF anthropologist who did the study. "There are probably hundreds of weeds growing right outside people's doors they could use."
Stepp combed through scientific journals and studies to determine which drugs on pharmacy shelves come from plants as opposed to those synthesized in a laboratory.
In a classic case of looking afar rather than at your feet, he found that although only about 3 percent of the world's quarter-million plant species are weeds, they make up more than a third 36 of the 101 plant species used in pharmaceuticals. In drug companies' quests to discover new remedies, weeds short-lived, herbaceous, fast-growing plants that thrive in areas of human disturbance that sprout along the outskirts of jungles and may have healing properties are routinely overlooked for flora ballyhooed for their disease-fighting qualities that are growing deep within woods, he said.
Perhaps the world's best-known medicinal weed is the poppy, from which morphine is derived, Stepp said. Scopolamine, an important drug for treating motion sickness, also is weed-based, as are the cancer medicines vinblastine, for Hodgkin's disease, and vincristin, for childhood leukemia, he said.
"With all the emphasis on the tropical rain forests, an entire area is being missed in natural products research," said Stepp, whose results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology. "These findings suggest that we need to broaden our horizons if we're going to search for new drugs from plants."
The plant-derived pharmaceuticals Stepp studied are single compounds extracted from a plant and used in a pharmaceutical, and are
Contact: John Richard Stepp
University of Florida