We often hear that money doesn’t grow on trees. And on one level that is patently true. However, on another it may have the ring of truth. For example, if the tree in question makes a compound with useful medicinal properties then its exploitation may lead to the generation of profits for those who grasp that opportunity. Aha, so you might think we are talking about development of aspirin, often used as an analgesic to relieve minor aches and pains, as an antipyretic to reduce fever, and as an anti-inflammatory medication derived from salicin found in such trees as willows, or the bitter-tasting, antipyretic, antimalarial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory alkaloid quinine from trees of the genus Cinchona. Not on this occasion.
Rather, we are here concerned with work by Ahcène Boumendjel et al., which has demonstrated the presence of (1R,2R)-rel-2-[(Dimethylamino)methyl]-1-(3-methoxyphenyl) cyclohexanol in root bark of the sub-Saharan shrub Nauclea latifolia, commonly known as African peach or pincushion tree). That gloriously named organic compound is a centrally acting opioid analgesic used to treat moderate-to-moderately-severe pain and is more commonly known as the commercially important drug Tramadol.
Sounds ‘useful’? Yes. However, the real significance of the discovery isn’t of ‘yet another pain-killer provided by nature, aren’t plants great’, but the fact that tramadol is a synthetic molecule previously only known as one of human invention and design. Although this study is apparently the third reported case of the occurrence of a synthetic and clinically-used drug in natural sources, it is the first documented instance of the occurrence of such a drug at clinically relevant concentrations in a plant source (to the best of the authors’ knowledge). That nature seems perfectly capable of producing it on its own begs the question of how many other human-created drugs might exist in other plants. Perhaps perchance a putative, plentiful phytological pharmacopeia patiently awaits? And another reason to marvel at the biosynthetic abilities of non-sentient organisms that haven’t spent years learning their craft at pharmacy school. Good – and timely – news also for the relief of the pain of hangovers that often accompany those imbibitionally indulgent parties that accompany such major post-New Year events as 25th January’s Burns’ Night?
[Rumours that Nauclea saplings can only be purchased from garden centres against a physician-authorised prescription are just that. Neither Mr Cuttings nor the Annals of Botany condone experimentation with, or self-administration of, extracts of Nauclea – Ed.]