Do you know where your medicine comes from? No, I mean truly derives from? What if I told you that the origin of some of your much-needed Medications came from some truly bizarre or cringe worthy and even controversial places? Yep! Throughout the centuries, ancient healers, apothecaries and even modern day pharmaceutical companies have explored different ingredients and even some ummm unusual resources for getting their much needed medicine to heal people. From Horse urine, reptile venom and even fish sperm, chances are some common medications you’ve taken in your life may have derived from truly unusual places. Here are brief origin stories for 8 medications that may just shock you!
8. Strange Source for a Medication for Diabetes
Did you know that some 18 million Americans have diabetes? Yeah and a good majority of those diabetics are type 2. Where the body loses its ability to turn blood sugar into energy because it either doesn't produce enough insulin or doesn't use it correctly. Type 2 diabetes is often associated with obesity and can potentially lead to serious health complications like stroke, amputation, kidney failure, heart attack, heart failure, and so on. Pretty serious stuff.
Now what if I told you that one of the most successful ways to control diabetes is from a shocking component… lizard spit. Yes, you heard that correctly. And I’ll repeat it for the people in the back, Lizard Spit. And not just any lizard, a large venomous lizard found right here in the United States and Mexico. Introducing the Gila Monster. I know what you’re thinking there's no way this wild-looking reptile is treating chronic health issues like diabetes. Oh contraire my friend, here’s what's so cool about it. The Gila Monster's saliva contains a very important 39-amino acid peptide called Exendin-4.
This hormone is almost exactly like a hormone that humans produce called glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP-1. GLP-1 increases the production of insulin when blood sugar levels are high.
Fast Forward a bit, nowadays you may have commercially heard of the Gila hormone by its prescription names of Byetta or Bydureon BCise. These are both the synthetic versions called simply Exenatide.
It’s in a class of medications called incretin mimetics and it's given by way of injection. It works by stimulating the pancreas to secrete insulin when blood sugar levels are high. Insulin helps move sugar from the blood into other body tissues where it is used for energy. Exenatide also slows the emptying of the stomach and causes a decrease in appetite. So all in all it’s wild to think that more than 2 million people now use Exenatide worldwide and it all started with this little cuddly Gila Monster.
7. Unusual Medicine Origin - for Osteoarthritis
Have you ever seen a Rooster’s comb? It’s the fleshy red mohawk-looking growth on top of the rooster, chicken, or any game foul type of bird’s head. While roosters use this to help cool themselves down, we of the human variety may have had a very different use for this comb. And it all has to do with Osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory disease that affects more than 30 million American adults. On a very basic level, it’s the most common type of arthritis that happens when joint cartilage breaks down or is damaged. It can be very painful, causing stiffness and reduced function in your joints and even breaking down and changes to the bone underneath. How many of you out there have arthritis pain? Let me know in the comments.
Alright, so how does one treat this degenerative “wear and tear” type of arthritis? Well, there is a treatment that has been around for decades. It’s called visco-supplementation or Hyaluronic Acid injections. Now you’ve probably seen Hyaluronic Acid as an ingredient in skincare and cosmetic products before but did you know that your body produces this clear, gooey substance naturally? Yes, this helpful acid is mostly found in your skin and connective tissue and has multiple functions in the body. It helps your skin retain moisture, maintain flexibility, soothes dry eyes, and helps in wound healing among many other uses.
But, circling back to the earlier rooster convo, you may be interested to know that cartilage from rooster combs contains very high levels of Hyaluronic Acid. It can be given in a series of injections to patients who are suffering from osteoarthritis. These injections help to not only lubricate the joints but also decrease their overall pain, increase mobility, and even delay the need for joint replacement surgery. Now although Hyaluronic Acid used to be extracted from the cartilage of the rooster's comb, scientists have thankfully since developed a synthetic version that they now use to treat patients.
6. Bizarre Medicine Origin is for Hypertension
It’s been called a potential silent killer. (or at least a precursor) And nearly half of US Adults or around 116 million have this issue. Hypertension. Defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg. Or if you are not sure the numbers but are taking medication prescribed by your doctor for hypertension. No matter how you define it, the most important thing to note is that high blood pressure is very concerning to doctors. As it forces the heart to work harder to pump blood to the rest of the body and can damage one’s arteries by making them less elastic, potentially leading to heart disease. Which I might add, Heart Disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. So nothing to take lightly.
Typically high blood pressure usually develops over time. Majority of the time, we do know exactly what is the main cause of it but we do know It can happen because of unhealthy lifestyle choices like not getting enough physical activity or having other health conditions such as diabetes. And obesity can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. (Especially if it runs in your family, this can certainly put you at higher risk).
Now what if I told you that another potentially silent killer may just…. Be the treatment to said scary hypertension? No really, It’s truly one of the most unusual derivations of a now highly effective drug. Meet the venomous Brazilian Jararaca Pit Viper. (pronounced: Hara-ra-rocka) That’s right, a medication derived straight from this hair raising snake. And can I say, let’s just all be glad we weren’t the researchers that had to figure this medication snake situation out. I digress.
But, patients who have hypertension are sometimes given a drug named Captopril. Captopril is an ACE inhibitor that was developed in the 1980’s. ACE stands for Angio-tensin-converting enzyme. Put simply, ACE inhibitors work by helping to relax veins and arteries, so the heart can pump blood more efficiently. And Captopril specifically was one of the first ACE inhibitors and it was created using the venom from this deadly snake. Crazy right? On any other day one bite from a Pit Viper like this can cause blistering, bleeding, renal failure and even death. But now secured the right way, this snake’s venom or the synthetic form nowadays truly contains the secret sauce to help combat hypertension. Specifically, Peptides. which are made up of strings of amino acids and are essentially the building block for protein. And these peptides found in Captopril act as an ACE inhibitor for folks with hypertension as I mentioned before but what's also cool is that it's also been used for other serious conditions like: heart failure, Kidney disease and is sometimes given to patients who have suffered a heart attack.
You’ve probably heard of Anti-venom, right? For instance you go hiking and surprise! You get bit by a rattlesnake. I often see this here in southern california where I work in the emergency department. People come into the hospital needing a high dose of anti-venom. Now all that being said, have you ever wondered to yourself, how exactly do we get Anti-venom? You may be surprised to find out that it’s not as cut and dry as you may think.
To go back a few years, it was first developed in 1895, using venom from a cobra. However true antivenom as we have it now was not available until 1927. And although the technique for making it has not changed much over the years it's pretty involved so to speak. First off, Donor animals, usually horses, sheep and even goats, are injected with a non-lethal dose of venom. That animal’s immune system triggers a response and produces antibodies. These animals typically have robust immune systems, and produce powerful antibodies that can bind to snake venom components. So from there blood is then drawn from the animal and the antibodies are separated from the blood, in plasma. The plasma is concentrated and then purified into high pharmaceutical grade anti-venom before being given to patients. Today, there are multiple antivenom treatments available for specific snake bites and even spiders. But it’s important to know that not every hospital carries it. So if you find yourself bitten by a snake or other venomous critter. Make sure you go to the right medical facility that can truly treat your wound. You don’t want to be wasting time when minutes and hours could literally mean life and death when it comes to combating a venomous bite.
4. Urine from Pregnant Horses
Ok, Disclaimer this next one is kind of a gross one. But definitely necessary… Alright, Did you know that there is a medication made from a pregnant horse's urine? (SFX: Record Scratch) Yeah you heard that right, a medication made from a pregnant horse’s urine. This is true. You see, when women begin menopause, a period of time that marks the end of their menstrual cycles. They have low estrogen which causes a variety of symptoms, including changes in metabolism, difficulty sleeping, mood changes and other problems associated with this. Oftentimes, to help treat some of these issues, a doctor will prescribe estrogen to help boost their levels, and alleviate symptoms. This is called hormone replacement therapy. Now one of these hormone replacement therapy medications is known as Premarin. It is a highly prescribed orally administered estrogen that is also available as a topical cream and has been used since 1942.
But here’s the thing. Premarin comes from mares' urine. A mare is a pregnant horse. And mare urine contains high levels of estrogen, and is similar to the estrogen that humans produce. Premarin does have some controversy attached to it. Some ethical concerns have been raised due to treatment of the mares. It’s been reported that mares are kept in smaller pens during their pregnancy, so that urine can be collected in bladder bags.
After 6 months, they are let out of these smaller pens so they can have their foal or baby horse. There are very few Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) farms left in the US and Canada, however most farms have been moved overseas. There have also been some recent studies showing an increased risk of cancer for patients who were on premarin.
3. Pig Pancreas
This one isn’t exactly kosher, but it is very useful in treating patients that are having trouble with their pancreas. For example, if a patient is suffering from chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis or some sort of blockage between the pancreas and intestines, they likely do not have pancreatic enzymes that help with digestion. Why is this a major deal? Well not only does this affect how your body breaks down food but the pancreas also makes the hormones insulin and glucagon that control your body’s blood sugar level. And about 1 in 5 cases are severe and can result in life-threatening complications like multiple organ failure. And could even potentially be deadly.
But here’s the silver lining: there is medication to help with this, it’s called Pancrelipase. Pancrelipase works by replacing the enzymes that your pancreas is lacking, and decreases fatty bowel movements. It also improves nutrition by breaking down fats, proteins, and starches into smaller substances that can be absorbed in the intestines.
But the million dollar question, where does this pancreas supporting medication come from? To be specific It comes from the pancreas of pigs. The same pigs that are often consumed as pork. So whether you have a religious aversion or if you have any allergies to pork, you should probably let your doctor know if you suffer from any pancreatic issues.
This is one of the most common medications found in almost every medicine cabinet on the planet, and not only that but it’s been used for over 3500 years! Aspirin. A Nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug, very commonly used to treat pain and swelling, reduce fever and so on. It’s also used as a blood thinner, helping to prevent strokes and heart attacks. We all use it right, but you may not have known about it's oh so subtle beginnings. Over 3500 years ago, bark from a willow tree was a traditional medicine used by Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and more for pain relief. Fast forward to the mid 1700’s when an English cleric by the name of Edward Stone was investigating willow bark and its effect on the sick. He gathered some willow bark and left it outside of a baker’s oven for 3 months, and once dried, would grind it into a powder. He reported in a letter written to the Royal Society that he gave the ground up powder to fifty different people, and with the exception of a few chronically ill patients (that may have had malaria), he reported that all his patients' conditions improved. It was later discovered that the crystals isolated from the willowbrook could produce a stronger compound called salicylic acid.
And, after further research and development in 1897, Bayer produced acetylsalicylic acid or what we know today as Aspirin. It has been in use since before WW1, and was widely used in alleviating symptoms from the influenza epidemic of 1918. Among the many plant products that have clinical utility, salicylates and aspirin are probably the most broadly used, estimates suggest about 100 Billion tablets are consumed each year are used to alleviate pain and other issues.
1.Weird places we derive medications from…has to go to a Heparin Reversal agent
And finally we Protamine. This origin story of this med is certainly a bit fishy but it may just save the life of you or someone you love. Alright let me paint the full picture here. In a nutshell, Heparin is a medication used to prevent blood clots from forming in people who have certain medical conditions or who are undergoing certain medical procedures that increase the chance that clots will form. For instance during open-heart surgery or say kidney dialysis. Although it sounds super helpful and it can be, don't get me wrong, but sometimes excessive bleeding can occur with Anticoagulants, or “ blood thinners,” as they are commonly referred to like heparin. This you don’t want. This could be a major issue. So in order to stop the excess bleeding after say renal dialysis or after open heart surgery, a medication called Protamine sulfate is used to counteract the anticoagulant or blood thinning effect. It acts as an antagonist that neutralizes heparin bleeding complications. Great, right? Well what if I told you that the goods that make up Protamine, amino acids, arginine etc, were derived from Salmon Sperm. Yes the swimmers of a swimmer, potentially life saving to the patients who require a reversal of heparin. So long as you don’t have a fish allergy.