A natural product is a chemical compound or substance produced by a living organism - found in nature that usually has a pharmacological or biological activity for use in pharmaceutical drug discovery and drug design. A natural product can be considered as such even if it can be prepared by total synthesis.
These small molecules provide the source or inspiration for the majority of FDA-approved agents and continue to be one of the major sources of inspiration for drug discovery. In particular, these compounds are important in the treatment of life-threatening conditions.
Natural products may be extracted from tissues of terrestrial plants, marine organisms or microorganism fermentation broths. A crude (untreated) extract from any one of these sources typically contains novel, structurally diverse chemical compounds, which the natural environment is a rich source of.
Chemical diversity in nature is based on biological and geographical diversity, so researchers travel around the world obtaining samples to analyze and evaluate in drug discovery screens or bioassays. This effort to search for natural products is known as bioprospecting.
Pharmacognosy provides the tools to identify, select and process natural products destined for medicinal use. Usually, the natural product compound has some form of biological activity and that compound is known as the active principle - such a structure can act as a lead compound (not to be confused with compounds containing the element lead). Many of today's medicines are obtained directly from a natural source.
On the other hand, some medicines are developed from a lead compound originally obtained from a natural source. This means the lead compound:
- Can be produced by total synthesis, or
- Can be a starting point (precursor) for a semi-synthetic compound, or
- Can act as a template for a structurally different total synthetic compound.
This is because most biologically active natural product compounds are secondary metabolites with very complex structures. This has an advantage in that they are extremely novel compounds but this complexity also makes many lead compounds' synthesis difficult and the compound usually has to be extracted from its natural source - a slow, expensive and inefficient process. As a result, there is usually an advantage in designing simpler analogues.
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