The Source of Drugs - Pharmacology

Ask a child where milk comes from and you might be surprised by his answer that it comes from the grocery store. The same might be true if you ask an adult where drugs come from and he answers from the drug store. Both are correct answers, but neither identifies the true source.

Drugs can be purchased from a drug store, but the origins are from one of four sources.


A number of plants have medicinal qualities and have been used for centuries as natural remedies for injuries and illnesses. Pharmaceutical firms harvest these plants and transform them into drugs that have a specific purity and strength sufficient to treat diseases.

An example of a drug that comes from a plant is digitalis. Digitalis is made from leaves of the foxglove plant and is used to treat congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias. Digitalis also strengthens the force of the contractions of the heart.


Byproducts of animals, including humans, are a source for drugs because they contain hormones that can be reclaimed and given to patients who need increased hormonal levels to maintain homeostasis.

For example, Premarin is a drug that contains estrogen that is recovered from mare urine. This is used as hormonal therapy to manage menopausal symptoms. Insulin is another hormonal drug that is used to regulate blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes mellitus. Insulin can be recovered from humans using DNA technology.


Our body requires trace elements of minerals in order to maintain homeostasis. Minerals are inorganic crystal substances that are found naturally on earth. Patients lacking an adequate level of these materials may take specific mineral based drugs to raise the level of minerals.

For example, an iron supplement is a common mineral-based drug that is given to patients who suffer iron deficiency, a condition which can lead to fatigue. Iron is a natural metal that is an integral part of body proteins such as hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout the body. Minerals are obtained from animal and plant sources.


Great strides in molecular biology and biochemistry enable scientists to create manmade drugs referred to as synthetic drugs. A synthetic drug is produced using chemical synthesis, which rearranges chemical derivatives to form a new compound.

Sulfonamides are a common group of synthesized drugs that are used to treat many infections including bronchitis, pneumonia, and meningitis. Sulfonamides are designed to prevent the growth of bacteria.


Herbals are non-woody plants. Some have medicinal qualities classified as a dietary supplement not a drug. Unlike drugs that are governed by the Food and Drug Administration, dietary supplements are not tested or regulated and can be sold over-the-counter without a prescription. This lack of monitoring means there are no standards for purity and strength for herbals.

Two packages of the same herbal distributed by the same company might have different purity and strength that makes the effect of the herb unreliable. There is no control over the manufacturing process and that can lead to contamination. The law prohibits distributors of herbals from claiming that an herbal can cure a disease. They can only state the effect of the herbal on the body. For example, the manufacturer can say that an herbal increases blood flow to the heart, but cannot say that the herb prevents heart disease.

Herbals can lead to unwanted side effects and undesirable interactions with prescription drugs. For example, ginkgo inhibits platelet aggregation (grouping to form clots) if taken with coumadin, an anticoagulant. The result can be increased bleeding and stroke. Garlic interacts with protease inhibitors used to treat HIV and decreases the effectiveness of the prescribed medication. The interaction of herbals with other drugs can be unpredictable and even dangerous. Healthcare providers should encourage patients to reveal any herbal preparations they are taking.

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