Recent developments return the industry to its roots.

For much of its history, pharma has funneled a significant portion of R&D spending towards the discovery of therapies found in nature; for example, aspirin, which is an analgesic derived from the bark of the willow tree. Otherwise known as acetylsalicylic acid, the buffered form of the synthesized compound brought to the world by Bayer in 1899. Aspirin continues to add to its amazing list of therapeutic benefits including possibly lowering the risk of cancer by 20%, according to a 2010 Lancet Study

The industry’s early researchers directed tremendous resources toward bringing the potential in nature to patients. Discovery of naturally occurring therapeutic compounds continued for decades, but isolating potential winners successfully remained difficult and expensive. Whether snake venom or tree roots, University of Leeds entomologist Ross Piper explained that screening of natural organisms for “promising activity” became a losing strategy economically because of those “stumbling blocks.” As a result, the industry shifted R&D towards developing drug product and drug substance from scratch. 

Piper explains that most of the useful nature-derived therapeutic compounds we are able to harness come from sponges and mollusks, and even the venom of the Gila Monster. Piper also points out that the insect kingdom could provide the best candidates going forward.

This was affirmation by a recent study published in Biomaterialswhich found that a better, scar-reducing wound glue could be created using “goop” from mussels. The study, from researcher Hyung Joon Cha and his colleagues at the University of Science and Technology in South Korea, found that by combining the skin protein decorin with mussel glue, deep purple scarring was reduced in rats by 78%. Although not quite ready for humans, this R&D niche remains intriguing and attractive to those seeking a natural path to drug development.