Pharmacologically active plant-derived natural products: challenges and opportunities in drug discovery

A team of researchers co-led by our MedChemNet Leader Atanas Atanasov (University of Vienna, Austria) have prepared a comprehensive review of the latest advances in natural product-derived drug discovery, giving important insights into the future of the field.

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Medicinal plants have historically been a rich resource for drug discovery, and today plant-derived natural products are an important source of novel therapeutics, but they also represent a complex endeavor requiring an integrated interdisciplinary approach. The challenges and opportunities in the field are discussed in a new review article, “Discovery and resupply of pharmacologically active plant-derived natural products: A review”.

Atanas Atanasov, one of our MedChemNet Leaders and first author on the study, explained: “In the last decades the pharmaceutical industry was mainly focusing on small molecules and high-throughput screening, and there has been less and less attention focused on natural products based drug discovery.” Atanasov continued, “This approach turned out not to be very productive, because what happened in the same period was that there were fewer new drugs that were reaching the market, so the whole approach was somehow disappointing and didn’t meet expectations.”

“Our analysis… shows that there is re-emerging interest in natural product-based drug discovery, and we can see this clearly by the exponentially number of publications in this research field. This is probably because there are some major advantages that are associated with natural product-based drug discovery,” Atanasov elaborated.

Atanasov described two main advantages to this method of drug discovery: “one of them is the huge structural diversity and structural complexity of natural products, and the other is that when we study compounds derived from medicinal plants, for example, sometimes there are hints for effectiveness from using traditional medicine.” He added, “This is a huge advantage, because it gives some hints for effectiveness already, at an early research stage. When you start the project, you know that you work with a plant that was effective in treatment of diabetes, for example, or inflammatory disease.”

The review article represents a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive approach to the field, covering what the authors believe to be all relevant areas for natural product-based drug discovery, providing an overview of the field with all its challenges and cutting-edge developments. The authors conclude that their work, summarizing recent developments, technological advances and research trends clearly indicates that natural products will be among the most valuable sources of novel therapeutics in the future.


Atanasov AG, Waltenberger B, Pferschy-Wenzig E-M et al. Discovery and resupply of pharmacologically active plant-derived natural products: A review. Biotech. Advan. 33(8) (2015)

Discover Plant-Based Drug Discovery: An Interview with Dr. Atanas Atanasov

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Stella Bennett

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