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Concept: Natural products


Medicinal plants have historically proven their value as a source of molecules with therapeutic potential, and nowadays still represent an important pool for the identification of novel drug leads. In the past decades, pharmaceutical industry focused mainly on libraries of synthetic compounds as drug discovery source. They are comparably easy to produce and resupply, and demonstrate good compatibility with established high throughput screening (HTS) platforms. However, at the same time there has been a declining trend in the number of new drugs reaching the market, raising renewed scientific interest in drug discovery from natural sources, despite of its known challenges. In this survey, a brief outline of historical development is provided together with a comprehensive overview of used approaches and recent developments relevant to plant-derived natural product drug discovery. Associated challenges and major strengths of natural product-based drug discovery are critically discussed. A snapshot of the advanced plant-derived natural products that are currently in actively recruiting clinical trials is also presented. Importantly, the transition of a natural compound from a “screening hit” through a “drug lead” to a “marketed drug” is associated with increasingly challenging demands for compound amount, which often cannot be met by re-isolation from the respective plant sources. In this regard, existing alternatives for resupply are also discussed, including different biotechnology approaches and total organic synthesis. While the intrinsic complexity of natural product-based drug discovery necessitates highly integrated interdisciplinary approaches, the reviewed scientific developments, recent technological advances, and research trends clearly indicate that natural products will be among the most important sources of new drugs also in the future.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Clinical trial, Drug discovery, Medicinal chemistry, Natural product, High-throughput screening, Natural products


Phytoestrogens constitute an attractive research topic due to their estrogenic profile and their biological involvement in woman’s health. Therefore, numerous studies are currently performed in natural products chemistry area aiming at the discovery of novel phytoestrogens. The main classes of phytoestrogens are flavonoids (flavonols, flavanones), isoflavonoids (isoflavones, coumestans), lignans, stilbenoids as well as miscellaneous chemical groups abundant in several edible and/or medicinal plants, belonging mostly to the Leguminosae family. As for other bioactives, the detection of new structures and more potent plant-derived phytoestrogens typically follows the general approaches currently available in the natural product discovery process. Plant-based approaches selected from traditional medicine knowledge and bioguided concepts are routinely employed. However, these approaches are associated with serious disadvantages such as time-consuming, repeated, and labor intensive processes as well as lack of specificity and reproducibility. In recent years, the natural products chemistry became more technology-driven, and several different strategies have been developed. Structure-oriented procedures and miniaturized approaches employing advanced hyphenated analytical platforms have recently emerged. They facilitate significantly not only the discovery of novel phytoestrogens but also the dereplication procedure leading to the anticipation of major drawbacks in natural products discovery. In this review, apart from the traditional concepts followed in phytochemistry for the discovery of novel biologically active compounds, recent applications in the field of extraction, analysis, fractionation, and identification of phytoestrogens will be discussed. Moreover, specific methodologies combining identification of actives and biological evaluation in parallel, such as liquid chromatography-biochemical detection, frontal affinity chromatography-mass spectrometry and pulsed ultrafiltration-MS will also be presented. Finally, miniaturized methods (microchip and biosensor) will be also discussed.With the current review, we attempt to give a wide and holistic overview of the different approaches which could be employed in the discovery of new phytoestrogens. On the other hand, we anticipate to attract more scientists to the area of phytoestrogens and to indicate the need of multidisciplinary concepts.

Concepts: Natural selection, Biology, Chemistry, Fabaceae, Flavonoid, Natural product, Natural products, Attractive


Marine natural products (MNPs) are recognized for their structural complexity, diversity, and novelty. The vast majority of MNPs are pharmacologically relevant through their ability to modulate macromolecular targets underlying human diseases. Angiogenesis is a fundamental process in cancer progression and metastasis. Targeting angiogenesis through selective modulation of linked protein kinases is a valid strategy to discover novel effective tumor growth and metastasis inhibitors. An in-house marine natural products mini-library, which comprises diverse MNP entities, was submitted to the Lilly’s Open Innovation Drug Discovery platform. Accepted structures were subjected to in vitro screening to discover mechanistically novel angiogenesis inhibitors. Active hits were subjected to additional angiogenesis-targeted kinase profiling. Some natural and semisynthetic MNPs, including multiple members of the macrolide latrunculins, the macrocyclic oxaquinolizidine alkaloid araguspongine C, and the sesquiterpene quinone puupehenone, showed promising results in primary and secondary angiogenesis screening modules. These hits inhibited vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-mediated endothelial tube-like formation, with minimal cytotoxicity at relevant doses. Secondary kinase profiling identified six target protein kinases, all involved in angiogenesis signaling pathways. Molecular modeling and docking experiments aided the understanding of molecular binding interactions, identification of pharmacophoric epitopes, and deriving structure-activity relationships of active hits. Marine natural products are prolific resources for the discovery of chemically and mechanistically unique selective antiangiogenic scaffolds.

Concepts: Cancer, Signal transduction, Angiogenesis, Drug discovery, Medicinal chemistry, Natural products


The first total synthesis of the dimeric berberine alkaloid ilicifoline (ilicifoline B) is reported. Its carbon skeleton is constructed from ferulic acid, veratrole, and methanol. The synthesis reported herein employs starting materials solely derived from wood. The natural product is thus constructed entirely from renewable resources. The same strategy is applied to a formal total synthesis of morphinan alkaloids. The use of wood-derived building blocks (xylochemicals) instead of the conventional petrochemicals represents a sustainable alternative to classical synthetic approaches.

Concepts: Oxygen, Alcohol, Total synthesis, Natural resource, Paclitaxel, Alkaloid, Natural products, Natural capital


Palladium-catalyzed cyclization of imines has been developed to construct the extremely rare 3H-pyrrolo[2,3-c]quinoline ring system for diversity oriented first total synthesis of antimalarial marine natural product Aplidiopsamine A as well as synthesis of Marinoquinoline A and potential natural product hybrid NCLite-M1.

Concepts: Total synthesis, Paclitaxel total synthesis, Integer, Imine, Natural product, Paclitaxel, Multiplication, Natural products


Erythromycin, avermectin and rapamycin are clinically useful polyketide natural products produced on modular polyketide synthase multienzymes by an assembly-line process in which each module of enzymes in turn specifies attachment of a particular chemical unit. Although polyketide synthase encoding genes have been successfully engineered to produce novel analogues, the process can be relatively slow, inefficient, and frequently low-yielding. We now describe a method for rapidly recombining polyketide synthase gene clusters to replace, add or remove modules that, with high frequency, generates diverse and highly productive assembly lines. The method is exemplified in the rapamycin biosynthetic gene cluster where, in a single experiment, multiple strains were isolated producing new members of a rapamycin-related family of polyketides. The process mimics, but significantly accelerates, a plausible mechanism of natural evolution for modular polyketide synthases. Detailed sequence analysis of the recombinant genes provides unique insight into the design principles for constructing useful synthetic assembly-line multienzymes.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Amino acid, Module, Natural products, Macrolide, Polyketide, Polyketide synthase


Monoterpene indole alkaloids comprise a diverse family of over 2000 plant-produced natural products. This pathway provides an outstanding example of how nature creates chemical diversity from a single precursor, in this case from the intermediate strictosidine. The enzymes that elicit these seemingly disparate products from strictosidine have hitherto been elusive. Here we show that the concerted action of two enzymes commonly involved in natural product metabolism-an alcohol dehydrogenase and a cytochrome P450-produces unexpected rearrangements in strictosidine when assayed simultaneously. The tetrahydro-β-carboline of strictosidine aglycone is converted into akuammicine, a Strychnos alkaloid, an elusive biosynthetic transformation that has been investigated for decades. Importantly, akuammicine arises from deformylation of preakuammicine, which is the central biosynthetic precursor for the anti-cancer agents vinblastine and vincristine, as well as other biologically active compounds. This discovery of how these enzymes can function in combination opens a gateway into a rich family of natural products.The biosynthetic pathway of preakuammicine, a monoterpene precursor of the anti-cancer agent vinblastine, has remained largely unexplored. Here, the authors provide transcriptomic and biochemical data to identify two enzymes that, in tandem, convert strictosidine to akuammicine, the stable shunt product of preakuammicine.

Concepts: Alcohol, Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Enzyme, Alkaloids, Alcohol dehydrogenase, Alkaloid, Natural products


Natural products have been a rich source of compounds for drug discovery. However, their use has diminished in the past two decades, in part because of technical barriers to screening natural products in high-throughput assays against molecular targets. Here, we review strategies for natural product screening that harness the recent technical advances that have reduced these barriers. We also assess the use of genomic and metabolomic approaches to augment traditional methods of studying natural products, and highlight recent examples of natural products in antimicrobial drug discovery and as inhibitors of protein-protein interactions. The growing appreciation of functional assays and phenotypic screens may further contribute to a revival of interest in natural products for drug discovery.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Gene, Bioinformatics, Drug discovery, Proteomics, Functional genomics, Natural product, Natural products


Ring expansion provides a powerful way of introducing a heteroatom substituent into a carbocyclic framework. However, such reactions are often limited by the tendency of a given substrate to afford only one of the two rearrangement products or fail to achieve high selectivity at all. These limitations are particularly acute when seeking to carry out late-stage functionalization of natural products as starting points in drug discovery. In this work, we present a stereoelectronically controlled ring expansion sequence towards selective and flexible access to complementary ring systems derived from common steroidal substrates. Chemical diversification of the reaction intermediate affords over 100 isomerically pure analogs with spatial and functional diversity. This regiodivergent rearrangement, and the concept of using chiral reagents to affect regiocontrol in chiral natural products, should be broadly applicable to late-stage natural product diversification programs.

Concepts: Enzyme substrate, Product, Chemical reaction, Drug discovery, Medicinal chemistry, Metaphysics, Natural product, Natural products


Understanding of the capacity of the natural world to produce secondary metabolites is important to a broad range of fields, including drug discovery, ecology, biosynthesis, and chemical biology, among others. Both the absolute number and the rate of discovery of natural products have increased significantly in recent years. However, there is a perception and concern that the fundamental novelty of these discoveries is decreasing relative to previously known natural products. This study presents a quantitative examination of the field from the perspective of both number of compounds and compound novelty using a dataset of all published microbial and marine-derived natural products. This analysis aimed to explore a number of key questions, such as how the rate of discovery of new natural products has changed over the past decades, how the average natural product structural novelty has changed as a function of time, whether exploring novel taxonomic space affords an advantage in terms of novel compound discovery, and whether it is possible to estimate how close we are to having described all of the chemical space covered by natural products. Our analyses demonstrate that most natural products being published today bear structural similarity to previously published compounds, and that the range of scaffolds readily accessible from nature is limited. However, the analysis also shows that the field continues to discover appreciable numbers of natural products with no structural precedent. Together, these results suggest that the development of innovative discovery methods will continue to yield compounds with unique structural and biological properties.

Concepts: Mathematics, Chemical substance, Drug discovery, Chemical compound, Nature, Natural product, Natural products, Planet Earth