8. The Calabar Bean And Physostigmine
The Efik people from the Akwa Iborn State, or modern-day Southeast Nigeria, were the first to be in contact with physostigmine from the calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum). Use of the calabar bean was very common in Efik culture as an ordeal poison for those accused of witchcraft. The milky extract of the bean was given to the accused, and if they died, the accusation of witchcraft was confirmed. If they lived, usually due to vomiting the poison out, they were declared innocent and set free.
Missionaries wrote about the Efik’s use of the calabar bean, and some of the beans found their way back to Scotland. In 1855, a toxicologist named Robert Christison decided to test the poison’s toxicity by consuming a bean and surviving to document what he experienced.
It was studied throughout the 1860s, most notably by Douglas Argyll Robertson, who was the first to use the calabar bean extracts medically and recorded its effects on the pupil. The most potent component from the calabar bean was finally isolated and named physostigmine by Thomas Fraser. In 1867, Ludwig Laqueur tested the extract on himself and used it to successfully treat his glaucoma. By the 1920s, Otto Loewi discovered the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and found that the calabar bean extract worked by increasing that neurotransmitter, having profound effects on the parasympathetic nervous system.
Medically, physostigmine does increase the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine by blocking the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which breaks it down. It is especially useful in treating the disease myasthenia gravis and has been more recently used to treat Alzheimer’s, as it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.
7. Meadow Saffron And Colchicine
The use of the plant Colchicum autumnale, or meadow saffron, for medical problems has been recorded as far back as 1500 BC on the ancient EgyptianEbers Papyrus for rheumatism and swelling. Since then, C. autumnale has been a treatment for other maladies such as gout, familial Mediterranean fever, Behcet’s disease, and pericarditis. It works in a similar way to Taxol, as it blocks microtubules.
As early as the first century AD, C. autumnale was being described as a treatment for gout by Pedanius Dioscorides. Gout is a type of arthritis characterized by needle-shaped crystals building up in the joints, causing sudden pain attacks, swelling, and redness. Others, such as Alexander of Tralles, Persian physician Avicenna, and Ambroise Pare have also recommended C. autumnale as a treatment for gout. Colchicine itself was isolated from C. autumnale in 1820 by French chemists P.S. Pelletier and J.B. Caventou. It was later purified by P.L. Geiger in 1833.
Despite its long history of being effective, colchicine actually had no FDA-approved prescribing information, dosage, recommendation, or drug interaction warnings until as recently as 2009.