Men of Medicine Learn from Creation
By “Awake!” correspondent in Sweden
HAVE you taken a stroll recently through the woods or an open field? If so, it probably did not occur to you that you were walking about in the oldest and largest “factory” for producing medicine. An investigation will reveal, however, that the natural creation is a most important source of chemical preparations used in treating our aches and pains.
Have you recently had a headache? Likely you reached for aspirin tablets. Aspirin has become a trade name for acetysalicylic acid, which is now mass-produced synthetically. Originally, however, aspirin was produced from a substance discovered in the bark of the willow tree. Willow bark contains salicin. After a process of refinement, salicin produces salicylic acid, which is the base for aspirin, probably the world’s best-known pain reliever.
Even the more sophisticated drugs of modern medicine frequently are not new. They can be traced back to Creation. On many occasions scientists have gotten ideas from folk medicine. After noting that use of certain plants benefited particular ailments, chemists have isolated the active ingredient for mass production. Let us consider some examples.
Plants as a Source of Raw Materials
Plants supply the raw material for many medications. A well-known heart medicine is an example. Some two centuries ago a doctor in England noticed that a certain home remedy helped persons suffering from dropsy, an illness in which fluid collects in various tissues or body cavities. This remedy included leaves of the foxglove plant, which bears the name Digitalis purpurea because of its fingerlike purple flower. From foxglove leaves comes the chemical “digitalis,” known throughout the world as essential in the treatment of many persons having heart disease. It would be most unwise, however, for anyone to treat himself with these leaves, for they are very poisonous and a correct dosage is of the utmost importance.
Another well-known medicinal plant is Atropa belladonna, also called “the deadly nightshade.” This is the source of atropine, the best-known member of a class of drugs that relax spasms in a number of organs.
Plants provide raw material for narcotics too. The best-known example is the opium poppy. From dried seed cases of these poppies comes a milky juice called opium (from the Greek word for poppy juice). As to the effects of the narcotic, a physician of the seventeenth century wrote: “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.” The pain-relieving qualities of opium are due to its containing the alkaloid “morphine,” named after Morpheus, Greek god of dreams. The well-known codeine (from Greek kōdeia, “poppyhead”) is a morphine-based pain reliever.
Nearly everyone has heard of penicillin. Perhaps this antibacterial substance has aided you to recuperate from a serious disease. Though penicillin is now manufactured by industry on an enormous scale, did you realize that this “wonder drug” had a humble beginning? It was first derived from mold of the genus Penicillium. One of its best strains came about in a culture from the stem of a moldy cantaloupe.
Have you ever heard of “sweet clover disease”? Some fifty years ago it was noticed that certain cattle, due to feeding on improperly cured sweet-clover hay, developed a malady characterized by severe bleeding. Later, scientists isolated the poison that had interfered with normal blood clotting in the cattle. They named the substance Dicoumarol and today it serves as an important anticoagulant.
Drugs from Animals
Animals are another source of modern medicines. Organ extracts, primarily from the glands of slaughtered animals, provide substances such as hormones and enzymes that act as ingredients in medicines. For instance, the thyroid hormone thyroxine, which is used in treating certain types of thyroid disease is derived from the thyroid gland of animals.
Do you know someone who suffers from diabetes? Perhaps you did not realize that insulin for treating this disease often comes from the pancreas of cattle. However, much insulin today is produced synthetically.
Of course, not all medicines contain purely natural substances. Where natural ingredients are scarce, scientists have found it practical to produce synthetics. They may start with a natural substance similar to what they want and then “rebuild” it into the desired ingredient.
Consider the steroid “cortisone,” which is commonly used in treating a great variety of ailments, including some forms of arthritis. Natural cortisone is found in the bile of cattle. But so little of it occurs naturally that a single day’s dosage could require the bile of forty cattle. However, a substance called diosgenin, with a molecular structure similar to cortisone, is found in certain yams that grow in Mexico. By use of an enzyme extracted from black-bread mold, chemists were able to change a diosgenin molecule into a cortisone molecule. There are now several plant by-products used for producing cortisone.
Vitamin C, essential for good health, available naturally, but in too small amounts for mass production. Having determined the molecular structure of ascorbic acid, which is pure vitamin C, scientists noticed that it resembled another molecule—glucose. Using acetic-acid bacteria, they were able to “rebuild” the glucose molecule into one of ascorbic acid, thus producing synthetic vitamin C.
Having achieved success at remolding already-existing molecules, chemists soon learned how to form totally new substances, ones not found in nature, but structurally similar to natural ones.
Indeed, many products used in the practice of medicine are simply modifications or synthetic duplications of natural substances. Even in this modern age, therefore, men of medicine continue to learn from Creation.
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