Does Mother Nature Provide the Greatest Inspiration for New Medicines?
One of my worst childhood memories involved drinking hot turmeric milk during the harsh Canadian winters. Hot turmeric milk is an Indian cold remedy that has been around for centuries. My brother and I tried just about everything under the sun to avoid enduring the awful, bitter taste of turmeric. I tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to convince my mother that turmeric is nothing more than a horrible tasting spice that is used in Indian cooking. One of the active constituents of turmeric is a chemical compound called curcumin. To date there are over 10,000 peer reviewed scientific publications on curcumin! Curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties and has been studied extensively in conditions such as neurodegenerative diseases , rheumatoid arthritis  and pancreatic cancer . Researchers have even engineered curcumin-based nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier with the aim of developing a next generation therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease . Who would have guessed that a ubiquitous spice found in my mother’s spice rack has so many interesting medicinal properties?
When Hippocrates said “let food be thy medicine”, he wasn’t just referring to turmeric. You may have heard that fish oil is good for you. Although I have never tasted fish oil, I can’t imagine that it tastes much better than turmeric. Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and extensive research supports the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in conditions such as depression , cognitive decline , complex inflammatory, autoimmune diseases  and cardiovascular disease . With some inspiration from Mother Nature, Scientists at GlaxoSmithKline developed a drug called Lovaza® from fish oil to treat hypertriglyceridemia, a condition associated with high levels of specific fats (triglycerides) in the blood that increase one’s risk of heart disease. Lovaza® contains the active ingredients, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that have been purified from fish oil. So, what is the advantage of taking Lovaza® over regular fish oil capsules? First, over-the-counter fish oil capsules do contain EPA and DHA but they are present at much lower concentrations in regular fish oil. Second, regular fish oil contains trace levels of the environmental toxin, mercury. In order to address these two problems, GSK Scientists developed a proprietary process to create a fish oil formulation enriched in DHA and EPA with substantially reduced levels of mercury. GSK is not the only large pharmaceutical company that took some assistance from Mother Nature when designing new drugs. The best-selling breast cancer drug, Taxol® (paclitaxel) that was developed by Bristol Myer Squibb was actually isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. A next-generation formulation of paclitaxel that is attached to the protein, albumin in order to enhance its potency is currently being marketed by pharmaceutical giant, Celgene as Abraxane®. Abraxane® is currently being used by Oncologists to treat breast, non small cell lung and pancreatic cancers.
Also inspired by Mother Nature, Scientists at a nutrition “start-up” called MYOS RENS Technology developed a line of functional food products called Qurr (www.qurr.com) based on a proprietary fertilized egg yolk formulation. The idea that eating eggs can help build muscles was made popular by the 1976 sports drama, Rocky in which boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) drank raw eggs while training for a fight. The problem with eating raw eggs is that it is very dangerous from a food safety standpoint due to the risk of Salmonella or Listeria infection. Cooking eggs substantially reduces the risk of infection but also destroys many of the nutrients that are naturally present in eggs. In order to address this issue, MYOS Scientists developed a proprietary process for pasteurizing egg yolk that circumvents the use of heat. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical study performed at the University of Tampa , Scientists demonstrated that this proprietary egg yolk formulation leads to significant gains in muscle mass and reduces blood levels of myostatin, a protein that “puts the brakes” on muscle growth. So is Mother Nature really the best teacher when it comes to developing new medicines? Time will tell but recent advances in technology are making it possible to improve upon what Mother Nature has given us.
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By Neerav D. Padliya, Ph.D.