The Strange World of Drug Origins: Nuns’ Urine, Yew Trees and Rooster Combs

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Rooster against colorful sunrise --- Image by © Ian Lishman/Juice Images/Corbis

Some people go to infamous extremes to get high — smoking dried toad venom, for example, or in one Northern culture, drinking the urine of reindeer that are tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. And yet, stranger sources than these have contributed to the development of some commonly used modern prescription medications.

I started thinking about it recently while undergoing fertility treatment. I discovered that one of the injectable drugs I was using to stimulate ovulation had been originally derived from the urine of menopausal nuns. Who came up with this, and how? — these are the things one tends to contemplate while lying on an examining table waiting for an ultrasound.

As it happened, the doctor assigned to that duty that day — a visiting fellow at Cornell’s Center for Reproductive Medicine — said he had studied with Dr. Bruno Lunenfeld, the physician who invented the fertility drugs. I recently wrote about the discovery of these medications, menopur and pergonal, for MSN Health:

Lunenfeld was a medical student in the early 1960s. At the time, he recognized that during menopause women’s urine was likely to contain high levels of the hormones that stimulate ovulation. Why? Because as the ovaries decline, the pituitary gland raises these hormone levels in an intensifying attempt release the remaining eggs.

Of course, finding a regular source for of such urine presented a problem. At a conference in Italy, however, Lunenfeld met the nephew of Pope Pius. He had a great source: nuns. “Where better to get large amount of FSH [an ovulation-stimulating hormone] than from women at menopause?” says [Dr. Nanette] Santoro, [chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado, Denver]. “Convents were a perfect place.”

But more often, new sources of life-saving medications are found by trial and error or by chance. That applies to drug discovery in the chemist’s lab — and in the forest. The bark of the ancient Pacific yew tree, for instance, turned out to be the source of the powerful remedy Taxol, used to treat breast, lung, ovarian and skin cancer.

Discovered in 1962 by researchers working for the government — the National Cancer Institute had simply contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to randomly sample wild American plants for potential cheap medicines — it would take three decades of developmental twists and setbacks before the drug finally reached market in 1992. “It was very satisfying to see something we worked on for so many years come to fruition,” Mansukh Wani, the co-discoverer of Taxol told me.

From old trees to rooster combs, drugs come from places you’d really never think. Also, from my story:

It’s used to lubricate arthritic joints and to plump wrinkly or sagging skin. But hyaluronic acid comes from a very strange place: it’s usually made from the combs of roosters. “A lot of drug products have been isolated from castaway parts in slaughterhouses,” says David Kroll, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at North Carolina Central University in Durham. “It’s probably one of the only parts of a chicken or rooster that you wouldn’t eat.  If you can get money from waste, you’re doing good.”

Click here for more. Or read a Brief History of Antidepressants.