Logo of envhperEnvironmental Health PerspectivesBrowse ArticlesAbout EHPGeneral InformationAuthorsMediaProgramsPartnerships
Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Mar; 109(Suppl 1): 69–75.
PMCID: PMC1240543
Research Article

The value of plants used in traditional medicine for drug discovery.


In this review we describe and discuss several approaches to selecting higher plants as candidates for drug development with the greatest possibility of success. We emphasize the role of information derived from various systems of traditional medicine (ethnomedicine) and its utility for drug discovery purposes. We have identified 122 compounds of defined structure, obtained from only 94 species of plants, that are used globally as drugs and demonstrate that 80% of these have had an ethnomedical use identical or related to the current use of the active elements of the plant. We identify and discuss advantages and disadvantages of using plants as starting points for drug development, specifically those used in traditional medicine.

Full Text

The Full Text of this article is available as a PDF (324K).

Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
  • Farnsworth NR, Akerele O, Bingel AS, Soejarto DD, Guo Z. Medicinal plants in therapy. Bull World Health Organ. 1985;63(6):965–981. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Verpoorte R. Pharmacognosy in the new millennium: leadfinding and biotechnology. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2000 Mar;52(3):253–262. [PubMed]
  • Vagelos PR. Are prescription drug prices high? Science. 1991 May 24;252(5009):1080–1084. [PubMed]
  • Farnsworth NR. The role of ethnopharmacology in drug development. Ciba Found Symp. 1990;154:2–21. [PubMed]
  • Farnsworth NR. Ethnopharmacology and drug development. Ciba Found Symp. 1994;185:42–59. [PubMed]
  • Phillipson JD, Anderson LA. Ethnopharmacology and Western medicine. J Ethnopharmacol. 1989 Feb;25(1):61–72. [PubMed]
  • Kinghorn AD. The discovery of drugs from higher plants. Biotechnology. 1994;26:81–108. [PubMed]
  • Vlietinck AJ, Vanden Berghe DA. Can ethnopharmacology contribute to the development of antiviral drugs? J Ethnopharmacol. 1991 Apr;32(1-3):141–153. [PubMed]
  • Farnsworth NR. Biological and phytochemical screening of plants. J Pharm Sci. 1966 Mar;55(3):225–276. [PubMed]
  • Harvey A. Strategies for discovering drugs from previously unexplored natural products. Drug Discov Today. 2000 Jul;5(7):294–300. [PubMed]
  • Spjut RW, Perdue RE., Jr Plant folklore: a tool for predicting sources of antitumor activity? Cancer Treat Rep. 1976 Aug;60(8):979–985. [PubMed]
  • Suffness M, Douros J. Current status of the NCI plant and animal product program. J Nat Prod. 1982 Jan-Feb;45(1):1–14. [PubMed]
  • Turner DM. Natural product source material use in the pharmaceutical industry: the Glaxo experience. J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Apr;51(1-3):39–44. [PubMed]
  • Newman DJ, Cragg GM, Snader KM. The influence of natural products upon drug discovery. Nat Prod Rep. 2000 Jun;17(3):215–234. [PubMed]
  • Clark AM. Natural products as a resource for new drugs. Pharm Res. 1996 Aug;13(8):1133–1144. [PubMed]
  • Cragg GM, Newman DJ, Snader KM. Natural products in drug discovery and development. J Nat Prod. 1997 Jan;60(1):52–60. [PubMed]
  • Cragg GM, Boyd MR, Cardellina JH, 2nd, Newman DJ, Snader KM, McCloud TG. Ethnobotany and drug discovery: the experience of the US National Cancer Institute. Ciba Found Symp. 1994;185:178–196. [PubMed]
  • Douros J, Suffness M. The National Cancer Institute's Natural Products Antineoplastic Development Program. Recent Results Cancer Res. 1980;70:21–44. [PubMed]
  • Douros J, Suffness M. New natural products under development at the National Cancer Institute. Recent Results Cancer Res. 1981;76:153–175. [PubMed]
  • Bhakuni DS, Dhar ML, Dhar MM, Dhawan BN, Mehrotra BN. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity. II. Indian J Exp Biol. 1969 Oct;7(4):250–262. [PubMed]
  • Bhakuni DS, Dhar ML, Dhar MM, Dhawan BN, Gupta B, Srimal RC. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity. 3. Indian J Exp Biol. 1971 Jan;9(1):91–102. [PubMed]
  • Dhar ML, Dhar MM, Dhawan BN, Mehrotra BN, Ray C. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity: I. Indian J Exp Biol. 1968 Oct;6(4):232–247. [PubMed]
  • Dhar ML, Dhar MM, Dhawan BN, Mehrotra BN, Srimal RC, Tandon JS. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity. IV. Indian J Exp Biol. 1973 Jan;11(1):43–54. [PubMed]
  • Dhar ML, Dhawan BN, Prasad CR, Rastogi RP, Singh KK, Tandon JS. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity : Part V. Indian J Exp Biol. 1974 Nov;12(6):512–523. [PubMed]
  • Dhawan BN, Patnaik GK, Rastogi RP, Singh KK, Tandon JS. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity: part VI. Indian J Exp Biol. 1977 Mar;15(3):208–219. [PubMed]
  • Dhawan BN, Dubey MP, Mehrotra BN, Rastogi RP, Tandon JS. Screening of Indian plants for biological activity: Part IX. Indian J Exp Biol. 1980 Jun;18(6):594–606. [PubMed]
  • Wall ME, Wani MC. Camptothecin and taxol: from discovery to clinic. J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Apr;51(1-3):239–254. [PubMed]
  • Kashman Y, Gustafson KR, Fuller RW, Cardellina JH, 2nd, McMahon JB, Currens MJ, Buckheit RW, Jr, Hughes SH, Cragg GM, Boyd MR. The calanolides, a novel HIV-inhibitory class of coumarin derivatives from the tropical rainforest tree, Calophyllum lanigerum. J Med Chem. 1992 Jul 24;35(15):2735–2743. [PubMed]
  • Rastogi RP, Dhawan BN. Research on medicinal plants at the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow (India). Indian J Med Res. 1982 Dec;76 (Suppl):27–45. [PubMed]
  • Shinwari MI, Khan MA. Folk use of medicinal herbs of Margalla Hills National Park, Islamabad. J Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Jan;69(1):45–56. [PubMed]
  • Pieroni A. Medicinal plants and food medicines in the folk traditions of the upper Lucca Province, Italy. J Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Jun;70(3):235–273. [PubMed]
  • Noumi E, Dibakto TW. Medicinal plants used for peptic ulcer in the Bangangte region, western Cameroon. Fitoterapia. 2000 Aug;71(4):406–412. [PubMed]
  • Mebs D. Notes on the traditional use of plants to treat snake bite in northern Papua New Guinea. Toxicon. 2000 Feb;38(2):299–302. [PubMed]
  • Merzouki A, Ed-derfoufi F, Molero Mesa J Contribution to the knowledge of Rifian traditional medicine. II: Folk medicine in Ksar Lakbir district (NW Morocco). Fitoterapia. 2000 Jun;71(3):278–307. [PubMed]
  • Ndubani P, Höjer B. Traditional healers and the treatment of sexually transmitted illnesses in rural Zambia. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999 Oct;67(1):15–25. [PubMed]
  • Bonet MA, Parada M, Selga A, Vallès J. Studies on pharmaceutical ethnobotany in the regions of L'Alt Empordà and Les Guilleries (Catalonia, Iberian Peninsula). J Ethnopharmacol. 1999 Dec 15;68(1-3):145–168. [PubMed]
  • Soejarto DD, Farnsworth NR. Tropical rain forests: potential source of new drugs? Perspect Biol Med. 1989 Winter;32(2):244–256. [PubMed]
  • Loub WD, Farnsworth NR, Soejarto DD, Quinn ML. NAPRALERT: computer handling of natural product research data. J Chem Inf Comput Sci. 1985 May;25(2):99–103. [PubMed]
  • Soejarto DD, Kinghorn AD, Farnsworth NR. Potential sweetening agents of plant origin. III. Organoleptic evaluation of Stevia leaf herbarium samples for sweetness. J Nat Prod. 1982 Sep-Oct;45(5):590–599. [PubMed]
  • Ogura M, Cordell GA, Quinn ML, Leon C, Benoit PS, Soejarto DD, Farnsworth NR. Ethnopharmacologic studies. I. Rapid solution to a problem--oral use of Heliopsis longipes--by means of a multidisciplinary approach. J Ethnopharmacol. 1982 Mar;5(2):215–219. [PubMed]
  • Oubré AY, Carlson TJ, King SR, Reaven GM. From plant to patient: an ethnomedical approach to the identification of new drugs for the treatment of NIDDM. Diabetologia. 1997 May;40(5):614–617. [PubMed]
  • Sherman DS, Fish DN. Management of protease inhibitor-associated diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2000 Jun;30(6):908–914. [PubMed]
  • Bierer DE, Dubenko LG, Zhang P, Lu Q, Imbach PA, Garofalo AW, Phuan PW, Fort DM, Litvak J, Gerber RE, et al. Antihyperglycemic activities of cryptolepine analogues: an ethnobotanical lead structure isolated from Cryptolepis sanguinolenta. J Med Chem. 1998 Jul 16;41(15):2754–2764. [PubMed]
  • Bierer DE, Fort DM, Mendez CD, Luo J, Imbach PA, Dubenko LG, Jolad SD, Gerber RE, Litvak J, Lu Q, et al. Ethnobotanical-directed discovery of the antihyperglycemic properties of cryptolepine: its isolation from Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, synthesis, and in vitro and in vivo activities. J Med Chem. 1998 Mar 12;41(6):894–901. [PubMed]
  • Luo J, Fort DM, Carlson TJ, Noamesi BK, nii-Amon-Kotei D, King SR, Tsai J, Quan J, Hobensack C, Lapresca P, et al. Cryptolepis sanguinolenta: an ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery and the isolation of a potentially useful new antihyperglycaemic agent. Diabet Med. 1998 May;15(5):367–374. [PubMed]
  • Carney JR, Krenisky JM, Williamson RT, Luo J, Carlson TJ, Hsu VL, Moswa JL. Maprouneacin, a new daphnane diterpenoid with potent antihyperglycemic activity from Maprounea africana. J Nat Prod. 1999 Feb;62(2):345–347. [PubMed]
  • Luo J, Cheung J, Yevich EM, Clark JP, Tsai J, Lapresca P, Ubillas RP, Fort DM, Carlson TJ, Hector RF, et al. Novel terpenoid-type quinones isolated from Pycnanthus angolensis of potential utility in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 1999 Feb;288(2):529–534. [PubMed]
  • Luo J, Chuang T, Cheung J, Quan J, Tsai J, Sullivan C, Hector RF, Reed MJ, Meszaros K, King SR, et al. Masoprocol (nordihydroguaiaretic acid): a new antihyperglycemic agent isolated from the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). Eur J Pharmacol. 1998 Apr 3;346(1):77–79. [PubMed]
  • Baker JT, Borris RP, Carté B, Cordell GA, Soejarto DD, Cragg GM, Gupta MP, Iwu MM, Madulid DR, Tyler VE. Natural product drug discovery and development: new perspectives on international collaboration. J Nat Prod. 1995 Sep;58(9):1325–1357. [PubMed]
  • King SR, Carlson TJ, Moran K. Biological diversity, indigenous knowledge, drug discovery and intellectual property rights: creating reciprocity and maintaining relationships. J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Apr;51(1-3):45–57. [PubMed]
  • Soejarto DD. Biodiversity prospecting and benefit-sharing: perspectives from the field. J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Apr;51(1-3):1–15. [PubMed]

Articles from Environmental Health Perspectives are provided here courtesy of National Institute of Environmental Health Science


Save items

Related citations in PubMed

See reviews...See all...

Cited by other articles in PMC

See all...


  • PubMed
    PubMed citations for these articles

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...