A New York Botanical Garden scientist says the plant world has 'great potential' as a source of new medicines to cure or treat disease.
There are probably at least 500 medically useful chemicals awaiting discovery in plant species whose chemical constituents have not yet been evaluated for their potential to cure or treat disease, according to a new analysis by James S. Miller, Ph.D., Dean and Vice President for Science at the Botanical Garden.
Currently, 135 drugs on the market are derived directly from plants; the analysis indicated that at least three times as many disease-fighting substances have yet to be found that could be developed into drugs or used as the basis for further drug research.
"Clearly, plant diversity has not been exhausted, and there is still great potential in the plant world," said Miller.
To arrive at his estimate, Dr. Miller used a formula based on the ratio of the number of drugs that have been developed from plants to the number of plants that were screened to find those drugs.
He then applied that ratio to the number of plant species that have not yet been screened.
Because of uncertainties in some of those numbers, the formula yields a range of potential drug discoveries. While there is no general agreement among botanists about the number of plant species that are likely to exist, Dr. Miller concluded that there are 300,000 to 350,000 species of plants.
Of those, he determined that the chemistry of only 2,000 species has been thoroughly studied, and perhaps only 60,000 species have been evaluated even partially for medicinally useful chemicals.
Working with those numbers, Dr. Miller calculated that there are likely to be a minimum of 540 to 653 new drugs waiting to be discovered from plants; the actual number could be much greater.
"These calculations indicate that there is significant value in continuing to screen plants for the discovery of novel bioactive medicinally useful compounds," concluded Dr. Miller.
The study has been published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal Economic Botany.