Schools of natural medicine, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, have served civilizations for centuries and are still in use today. It should come as no surprise that pharmaceutical companies would want to mine the wisdom of these traditions in order to create new products. While developing a synthetic drug is expensive, a product’s patent gives the company the exclusive right to use that recipe for a number of years.
From Herbal Cures to Synthetic Drugs
There are many examples of traditional herbs that paved the way for modern medicines. For centuries, molds were used to treat infections before physicians noticed one particular mold, Penicillium, could fight infections consistently. An isolated and purified version of this mold turned into the first true antibiotic. Poppy leaves have a long history of use as a sleep aid, pain killer, and overall relaxer. At the turn of the 19th century, the small amounts of codeine and morphine in poppies were used to create the first alkaloid. Morphine is of course the primary postsurgical pain medication used in hospitals.
Sometimes scientific breakthroughs lead researchers to take a second look at traditional medicines, where they might discover active components that lead to even better modern medicines. Herbalists used floral remedies like foxglove for a variety of ailments before it was discovered that derivatives of the plant could be used to treat congestive heart failure. Long before cholesterol had been identified in human blood, red yeast rice was used for centuries in China for a food as well as medicine for cardiovascular health. Researchers then found a statin-like chemical in red yeast rice as well as unsaturated fatty acids, phytosterols and isoflavones.
Natural medicine, which includes herbal cures, has become a popular go-to for many consumers. While modern medicine primarily relies on synthetic drugs for life-prolonging measures, people often look to natural remedies to fill nutritional gaps or add comfort to one’s life. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are motivated to produce drugs that will increase quality of life. To do this, a company first has to patent a process to make sure they are the only ones profiting from it.
The Future of Synthetic Herbal Cures
With the increased popularity of natural remedies in recent decades, the FDA has considered whether the standard procedures of how drugs get to market and are regulated is still viable. Many of these rules are outlined in the Dietary Supplement and Education Act of 1994, but there have been many medical breakthroughs in two and a half decades. In 2019 the FDA announced it has intentions to modernize the FDA. This has some people wondering if there will be stricter guidelines for natural supplements moving forward.
There are examples of synthetic vitamins on the market. Brands like Centrum and NatureMade make low-dose synthetic vitamins E and C. Bayer’s One a Day line of multivitamins is also synthetic. While products such as these can certainly be taken to fill nutritional gaps, it is important to note that synthetic vitamin products often have extra ingredients such as binders, fillers and coloring agents that are not approved by the FDA. It is worth the consumer’s while to research any product or brand he or she may be interested in purchasing.
There continues to be a gray area concerning whether natural or synthetic medicine is a generally more beneficial path for the consumer. Under current guidelines, it is very expensive for a company to develop a new drug (estimated between $1-3 billion). For synthetic drugs, companies can only make a profit off of patented products. If regulations increase on companies that make natural products, it may become too expensive for smaller companies of natural supplements to make new products.
Herbal cures continue to help many people live happy and productive lives. There are many books and online resources that declare the virtues of natural medicine. We all must rely on synthetic drugs at one time or another. It is yet to be seen whether the future will make it easier for pharmaceutical companies to make synthetic drugs out of vitamins and herbs. It continues to be important for consumers to be careful and vigilant about what they choose to put into their body.