For its redemption, the pharmaceutical industry must go plant-based

Should the pharmaceutical industry be lauded or lambasted for the drugs that they've developed? Or is there a middle path for the industry to take?

Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, U.S. (photo credit: REUTERS/GEORGE FREY)
Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, U.S.
(photo credit: REUTERS/GEORGE FREY)

As we rightly applaud the pharmaceutical industry for its swift and efficient response to COVID-19, and its many history-making breakthroughs including penicillin, insulin, and vaccines to curb everything from polio to smallpox, there’s another number that should nonetheless continue to haunt us: 91,799. 

That’s how many Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about a third as many Americans as succumbed to coronavirus. Most of them died of synthetic opioids, produced by a select few of the same industry that saved so many lives over the course of the pandemic. 
It's a shocking number that elicits a conflicting feeling: Should this industry be lambasted or heralded

Responsible drug development

I prefer a middle-path. As COVID-19 inspired the pharmaceutical industry to rethink the way they develop vaccines -- while millions of lives hung in the balance -- we must urge them to use the same inspiration to rethink the way they advance other treatments, particularly those which have caused harm.  

Luckily, there’s an elegant and profitable solution at hand. The industry should go plant-based.

 That last sentence, I realize, may well cause some to chuckle, evoking images of trendy California cafes offering vegan menus or animal rights activists extolling the virtues of shunning fur and leather. But plant-based or plant-derived medicine is nothing to giggle at; in fact, there are three main reasons why it might be the pharmaceutical industry’s very radiant future.

The first reason is simple: a plant-based or plant-derived breakthrough could be part of pharma’s future because it’s also part of its past. To name but one obvious example, in 1897, when German pharma giant Bayer, one of the industry’s pioneers, was working on creating a general-purpose pain-relieving drug, it turned to the willow bark, which Ancient Egyptian medical texts extolled for being an excellent cure for non-specific aches and pains. The company tried out a host of similar plants, and settled on the Spiraea tree, naming its medicine after it: Aspirin rose to become the holder of the Guinness world record for being the best-selling drug in history. 
Plant-based medicine created the pharmaceutical industry. But, alas, you can’t patent a plant, or mass-produce it, at least consistently, so a range of well-meaning motives led to increasing dependency on synthetics. This, too, worked out well for a while, but, as anyone who has lost a loved one to fentanyl sadly knows, it is not without its grim side-effects. Which leads me to the second reason why going plant-based is key.
At the moment, according to the USDA, 40 percent of all drugs are synthesized from plants. This means that if the industry decides to look beyond its dependency of synthetic therapeutics, it has immense room for growth. Instead of using synthetic opioids for pain relief, to name but one obvious example, we can adhere to a torrent of scientific research about the efficacy of cannabis, a natural and far less harmful alternative. And we can use plants for other, diverse afflictions as well: As recent studies clearly show, natural psychoplastogens like psilocybin, a compound found in more than 200 kinds of mushrooms, are, when administered in the proper dosage, far more effective as antidepressants than the traditional synthetic alternatives found on the market. Consider that 40 million Americans report suffering from anxiety disorders every year, and that this number keeps rising despite the availability of top-notch synthetic drugs, and you realize why going plant-based might not only deliver much needed respite, but reach a new segment of patients and an entire new business vertical. 
This is particularly true given the scientific breakthroughs in plant-based medicine, which leads me to the third reason to feel very bullish about this approach to curing disease. Plant-based medicine has come a long way since the days of crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. These days, we have cutting-edge technologies available which allow us to take the essential active medicinal compounds found in a specific targeted plant and grow them in plant-cells in a way which also has the ability to increase key active ingredients. Such plant-derived ingredients include polyphenols, cannabinoids, micronutrients, and others that naturally occur in plants and help us heal, making them even more present and potent than what you’d find in the original plant (this segment on US-based TBN explains).  

Plant-based medicine

It’s a complex process, but to get a general idea of it, imagine an almost magical greenhouse where you can consistently grow in aseptic bioreactors an infinite supply of the critical active ingredients from identified plants while optimizing each one to deliver the maximum benefit with which nature, in its infinite wisdom, endowed it. What’s even better for the Pharma world is that these unique compositions of active compounds can be patented.

It hardly takes an MBA to read the above and realize that plant-based medicine now meets all the conditions that appeal to a very robust bottom line. These days, we have innovative scientific breakthroughs that can be patented and that deliver consistent results, making it possible for companies to scale up massively. Compare that with the enormous settlements Big Pharma and its adjacents are now shelling out for their role in the opioid crisis— days ago, four pharma companies agreed to a $26 billion settlement for their role in the opioid crisis—and you realize that plant-based medicine is an obvious answer to continue the momentum the pharmaceutical industry is feeling, as it comes out of the Covid-19 response as heroes. 
Plant-based medicine, then, offers a path forward that’s not only innovative, lucrative, and impactful but also one that can help a segment of the pharmaceutical industry redeem itself by rededicating itself to its original mission of using science to find new ways to heal and help mankind. The scientific community agrees, by the way. In a recent response to the opioid crisis in North America, the Stanford-Lancet Commission stated that innovations in biomedical research for pain relief and opioid use disorder are “urgently needed in response to the opioid crisis”.
We already have all the technology we need to extract life-changing medicine from cannabis, pomegranates, red grapes and olives, to name only four of many plants. If Big Pharma wants to continue its path to redemption and enjoy decades more of economic growth without the moral stain that comes from leaving scores of its users dead or addiction-addled, it must ease up its reliance on synthetics and quite literally go back to its plant-based roots. The development of the COVID-19 vaccine gave us an opportunity to re-imagine what’s possible, let’s use this momentum to do it again.   

 Ilan Sobel is the CEO of the Vancouver and Rehovot-based company BioHarvest Sciences Incnces Inc