Pharmacognosy is an elective worth pursuing

July 15, 2013

Pharmcognosy is no longer a required course in pharmacy education, although some schools offer it as an elective. The newer schools do not offer it at all. Do new student pharmacists even know the definition of the word?

After brunch in a coffee shop in Sarasota, Fla., I wandered next door to the Kiev Delicatessen. At the end of the deli counter, I found a huge display of herbal teas, poultices, papers, capsules, suppositories, creams, and lotions.

They were exhibited in an area that was not self-serve, probably 500 different products with Russian labels. I doubted if many of these products could be purchased from American sources and sold in American pharmacies.

I dared to go behind the counter and snapped some pictures, and then I was busted by the owner.

“Why you take picture?”

“I am interested,” I said. I held up my phone and pointed at the well-tended display. “I am a pharmacist. I studied pharmacognosy [drugs from plant and animal origin] for a whole year.” 

I had no idea what the Cyrillic words were. I picked up a brightly colored box. The source name was in English: Nepeta cataria, catnip. “This has been a digestive aid for decades,” I said. “Unfortunately, kids smoke it to get high.” 

“Why you take pictures?”

I took another box. Pausinystalia yohimbe.  “Helps a man be a man.”

Yocon is a prescription-only brand name of yohimbine hydrochloride 5.4 mg. I dispensed Yocon 30 years ago for its aphrodisiac qualities. I recently read that yohimbine helps with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are plenty of OTC yohimbine products hawked on the Internet, but this is a serious drug. I do not believe they synthesize it. The bark of the plant is the only source. 

“Delete pictures.”          

I complied, bought some tea cookies from Macedonia, and left the deli with a fresh batch of questions. Something has happened to the art and science of pharmacy, and it has everything to do with greed and gluttony and the quest for more profits. 

Any more breakthrough drugs?

I think that I can say with confidence that the search for new therapeutic drugs is in the laboratories of Big Pharma. Computers process countless molecules through algorithms that speculate where the next entirely new class of affordable drugs will be found. This apparently is the cost-effective path to profitable new products. The problem is that it hasn’t worked lately. Have you noticed that there have been no really new drugs for over a decade or more, unless you count the specialty drugs you see on television, which cost $5,000 a month?

Tweaking drugs for new indications is cheaper than sending someone into the Amazon to find new cures. Nature’s laboratory will never run out of really good drugs. That is Pharmacognosy. Although no longer a required course in pharmacy education, some schools offer it as an elective. The newer schools do not offer it at all. Do new pharmacists even know the definition of the word?

Don’t try to tell me that it was a Cowlitz Indian shaman who showed up at Squibb in 1967 shaking a hunk of Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), “Big magic cure cancer in bark.” Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani are credited with isolating Taxol from the yew bark. I doubt if Monroe or Wani ever muddied their boots in the verdant old growth temperate rainforest below Mount St. Helens. It had to be a pharmacognocist who struggled through the thick vegetation, don’t you think?  Who gave him the hint where to look?  Perhaps it really was the Indian shaman who passed on the legend that spawned a billion-dollar drug class. Taxanes have saved millions of lives. These drugs are still processed from plant origin. 

Contemporary pharmacy students come out of school these days being able to race the clock, but do they have a hint that galantamine (Razadyne) comes from the genus Narcissus (daffodil)?

I know it is the leaden feet of the ACPE that need to be held to the fire. What was ACPE thinking allowing such a vast universe of pharmacy to be simply washed away, and for whose benefit? New pharmacists deserve better.