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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


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


This work assesses the current instrumentation, method development, and applications in countercurrent chromatography (CCC) and centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC), collectively referred to as countercurrent separation (CCS). The article provides a critical review of the CCS literature from 2007 since our last review (J. Nat. Prod. 2008, 71, 1489-1508), with a special emphasis on the applications of CCS in natural products research. The current state of CCS is reviewed in regard to three continuing topics (instrumentation, solvent system development, theory) and three new topics (optimization of parameters, workflow, bioactivity applications). The goals of this review are to deliver the necessary background with references for an up-to-date perspective of CCS, to point out its potential for the natural product scientist, and thereby to induce new applications in natural product chemistry, metabolome, and drug discovery research involving organisms from terrestrial and marine sources.

Concepts: Analytical chemistry, Drug discovery, Medicinal chemistry, Natural product, Natural products, Journal of Natural Products


Fragment-based ligand and drug discovery predominantly employs sp(2)-rich compounds covering well-explored regions of chemical space. Despite the ease with which such fragments can be coupled, this focus on flat compounds is widely cited as contributing to the attrition rate of the drug discovery process. In contrast, biologically validated natural products are rich in stereogenic centres and populate areas of chemical space not occupied by average synthetic molecules. Here, we have analysed more than 180,000 natural product structures to arrive at 2,000 clusters of natural-product-derived fragments with high structural diversity, which resemble natural scaffolds and are rich in sp(3)-configured centres. The structures of the cluster centres differ from previously explored fragment libraries, but for nearly half of the clusters representative members are commercially available. We validate their usefulness for the discovery of novel ligand and inhibitor types by means of protein X-ray crystallography and the identification of novel stabilizers of inactive conformations of p38α MAP kinase and of inhibitors of several phosphatases.

Concepts: DNA, Protein structure, X-ray, Enzyme inhibitor, Drug discovery, X-ray crystallography, Natural product, Natural products


Bacterial aromatic polyketides are a group of natural products synthesized by polyketide synthases (PKSs) that show diverse structures and biological activities. They are structurally subclassified into linear, angular, and discoid aromatic polyketides, the formation of which is commonly determined by the shaping and folding of the poly-β-keto intermediates under the concerted actions of the minimal PKSs, cyclases and ketoreductases. Murayaquinone, found in several streptomycetes, possesses an unusual tricyclic angular aromatic polyketide core containing a 9,10-phenanthraquinone. In this study, genes essential for murayaquinone biosynthesis were identified, and a linear anthraoxirene intermediate was discovered. A unique biosynthetic model for the angular aromatic polyketide formation was discovered and confirmed through in vivo and in vitro studies. Three oxidoreductases, MrqO3, MrqO6, and MrqO7, were identified to catalyze the conversion of the linear aromatic polyketide intermediate into the final angularly arranged framework, which exemplifies a novel strategy for the biosynthesis of angular aromatic polyketides.

Concepts: DNA, Amino acid, Metabolism, Enzyme, Hydrogen, Natural products, Polyketide, Discodermolide


Plants are an excellent source of drug leads. However availability is limited by access to source species, low abundance and recalcitrance to chemical synthesis. Although plant genomics is yielding a wealth of genes for natural product biosynthesis, the translation of this genetic information into small molecules for evaluation as drug leads represents a major bottleneck. For example, the yeast platform for artemisinic acid production is estimated to have taken >150 person years to develop. Here we demonstrate the power of plant transient transfection technology for rapid, scalable biosynthesis and isolation of triterpenes, one of the largest and most structurally diverse families of plant natural products. Using pathway engineering and improved agro-infiltration methodology we are able to generate gram-scale quantities of purified triterpene in just a few weeks. In contrast to heterologous expression in microbes, this system does not depend on re-engineering of the host. We next exploit agro-infection for quick and easy combinatorial biosynthesis without the need for generation of multi-gene constructs, so affording an easy entrée to suites of molecules, some new-to-nature, that are recalcitrant to chemical synthesis. We use this platform to purify a suite of bespoke triterpene analogs and demonstrate differences in anti-proliferative and anti-inflammatory activity in bioassays, providing proof of concept of this system for accessing and evaluating medicinally important bioactives. Together with new genome mining algorithms for plant pathway discovery and advances in plant synthetic biology, this advance provides new routes to synthesize and access previously inaccessible natural products and analogs and has the potential to reinvigorate drug discovery pipelines.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Organism, Chemical synthesis, Drug discovery, Natural product, Natural products