End Lines: The map - Field hospital

Plants have always been a prime source for our most powerful medicines. But where, asks Michael Day, do these little miracle cures come from?

This year is the centenary of the first official use of aspirin. Originally prescribed to treat headaches, gout and rheumatic pain, it's now also recommended to fight heart disease and may even prevent bowel cancer. Pretty impressive for a humble painkiller based on extracts from the willow tree and meadowsweet. But aspirin isn't the only important drug derived from plants. Dozens of others have similar origins, and there could be hundreds more waiting to be exploited. If we don't destroy their eco-systems, they may provide breakthrough treatments to transform the next 100 years of medicine.

Mexico The Mexican Yam might not seem a likely agent for one of the great social changes of this century. In the early Forties, however, species native to Central America were found to contain enough of the steroid diosgnenin to make viable the commercial production of oral contraceptives. The vegetable also produces cortisone and hydrocortisone, for treating arthritis and asthma.

Bolivia The mountain forests of Bolivia gave us the first effective treatment for malaria. In the 17th century, missionaries learnt from native Indians that the bark of the cinchona tree cured fevers: from this bark the bitter-tasting quinine was isolated. It's still the main treatment for cerebral malaria, the deadliest form of the disease, in the worst- affected continent, Africa. The disease kills over two million people a year, but without quinine the toll would be much higher.

England One of the oldest heart medicines is found in English country gardens. Digitalis, a mixture of alkaloids from the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) has been used since the late 18th century to regulate the beat of the heart and strengthen its contraction. Digitalis is no longer used in its original form, but the purified forms of digoxin and digitoxin are currently back in fashion because of their proven ability to keep heart-failure patients out of hospital.

Colombia The coca bush (Erythroxylum coca) is best known for giving the world Colombian marching powder. But we shouldn't forget that cocaine, apart from giving rock stars' sinuses a bit of gyp, has also provided chemists with the chemical blueprint for such compounds as lignocaine, the most widely-employed local anaesthetic. Cocaine was imported into America and Europe as a tonic in the middle of the last century. It was in 1884 that it brought about a revolution in surgery when doctors discovered its power to deaden the nerve endings.

Turkey The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has given us a painkiller even more important than aspirin: morphine and its derivatives. Morphine has been used recreationally for thousands of years. Today its legitimate use is restricted to medicine, but our inability to synthesise this alkaloid means we have to rely on opium farming. India, Russia and Turkey supply the above-board stuff, while "The Golden Triangle" on the borders of Laos, Thailand and Burma supplies the black market. Morphine and its close relative diamorphine, better known as heroin, have recently undergone a renaissance in medical circles, with experts stressing that side-effects such as addiction have been overplayed to the detriment of their remarkable ability to ease pain.

Mozambique Tapioca, scourge of school dinners, may help us find a drug for cancer. Cassava, the source of tapioca, stores cyanide. (In the last decade, 10,000 people have been paralysed by improperly prepared cassava in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zaire.) Tests are underway to see if the cyanide-producing enzyme can be targeted at tumours in the body.

China In South-east Asia the falciparum parasite that causes deadly cerebral malaria is becoming resistant to quinine (see Bolivia). If, as expected, the resistant strain spreads to sub-Saharan Africa, the results could be catastrophic. Just as well then that there is an alternative Chinese herbal cure called artemether, derived from the wormwood shrub. High-powered clinical trials are confirming its effectiveness in treating cerebral malaria and it's now being used in South-east Asia. At the moment, though, doctors in Africa are keeping artemether in reserve until actually needed.

Madagascar Nine out of 10 child victims of acute leukaemia survive. Many of them have a small Madagascan flower to thank. The rosy (or Madagascan) periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) was investigated as a treatment for diabetes, but this proved unsuccessful. Then, in 1958, a compound called vinblastine was isolated from the plant, and proved an effective treatment for Hodgkin's disease. Another key drug, vincristine, was later identified - and is largely responsible for today's remission rate against some leukaemias.

Japan People suffering from allergies or blocked nasal passages are often prescribed a medicine containing ephedrine. The chemical is an alkaloid derived from Ephedra shrubs found in China and Japan. Ephedrine helps to clear blocked bronchial and nasal passages by reducing the swelling in the nose and throat, although its use in the treatment of conditions such as asthma has been largely superseded by safer drugs such as salbutamol.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Day In a Page

    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears