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How many of the medications used today are derived from plants?

Learn about the role plants play in the production of medications.

Some plants, like marijuana, produce chemicals that can help the sick. [© Shutterstock, 2009]
© Shutterstock, 2009
Some plants, like marijuana, produce chemicals that can help the sick.

Of the more than 250 thousand known plant species, less than 1 percent have been thoroughly tested for medical applications. Yet out of this tiny portion have come 25 percent of our prescription medicines.

The United States National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants from which anti-cancer drugs are or can be made. This includes ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Asian Mayapple, (Podophyllum hexandrum), western yew (Taxus brevifolia), and rosy periwinkle. Seventy percent of these 3,000 come from rain forests, which also are a source of countless other drugs for diseases and infections.

Rain forest plants are rich in so-called secondary metabolites, particularly alkaloids, which biochemists believe the plants produce to protect them from disease and insect attack.

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