Science-- there's something for everyone

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nature imitates science

Pain researchers who are looking for new drugs to treat and manage pain often look to nature for new compounds. Yesterday, I wrote about a promising new pain medication found in centipede venom. Once we find a useful natural product, we attempt to synthesize it in the lab. However, here’s a case where the opposite happened. Scientists had first created a synthetic pain-killer called tramadol (a modification of morphine) and later discovered that this same compound already exists in the wild.

File:Nauclea latifolia .jpg
Nauclea latifolia

Photo by Scott Zona, 7/15/2009
In sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a tree (the African pincushion tree Nauclea latifolia) that the local people have used for generations to treat a variety of illnesses. The root bark of this plant is traditionally used to provide pain relief. Upon further investigation, an international team of scientists were able to isolate the molecules responsible for this effect. To their surprise, it was identical to tramadol.

Thumbnail image of graphical abstract

The analgesic tramadol has been isolated from the root bark of N. latifolia, an African medical plant. This finding is a rare example of a common synthetic drug that occurs at considerable concentrations in nature. Cl purple, N blue, O red.
doi: 10.1002/anie.201305697.

The N. latifolia version of tramadol was not only just as effective as the synthetic version in relieving pain (tested on poor little mice), but was also found in considerable concentrations (up to 4%) within the root bark. Taken together, it's no wonder the plant has long been used as a medicine by indigenous peoples.

The authors point out that there are at least nine other species of Nauclea in Africa that might also contain useful and intriguing compounds. I'd say they are definitely worth a thorough investigation, especially considering that the interesting compound in N. latifolia was found only in the root bark and not in any other parts of the plant.

Boumendjel, A., Sotoing Taïwe, G., Ngo Bum, E., Chabrol, T., Beney, C., Sinniger, V., Haudecoeur, R., Marcourt, L., Challal, S., Ferreira Queiroz, E., Souard, F., Le Borgne, M., Lomberget, T., Depaulis, A., Lavaud, C., Robins, R., Wolfender, J.-L., Bonaz, B. and De Waard, M. (2013), Occurrence of the Synthetic Analgesic Tramadol in an African Medicinal Plant . Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.. doi: 10.1002/anie.201305697.

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