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By Christopher W. Cunningham, Missy Lowery, Anne-Cecile Bayne, and David Fast

Natural products were in the spotlight in 2015 when the discoverers of artemisin and avermectin received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Natural products have been used by humankind throughout history to treat a variety of conditions and diseases. Indeed, up to one third of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs are natural products or based on the structure of a natural product. In addition, molecular entities derived from natural products can be seen in multiple drug categories ranging from anti-infectives to anticancer. Originally, natural products were primarily derived from plants. More recently, scientists are looking at other avenues in the natural world including animal venoms, deep sea microbes, and extremophiles for new compounds. Alternative systems of medicine such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda are also being mined for new compounds.

Clearly natural products have played and will continue to play an important role in the pharmaceutical industry. The June AAPS Newsmagazine cover story, Hot Topics in Nutraceuticals and Natural Products, highlights two emerging sources of new pharmaceuticals: Cannabis spp. and the human microbiome.

The endocannabinoid signaling system (ECSS) has long been understood to be a crucial regulator of stress, anxiety, pain and inflammation pathways, seizure disorders, and metabolic function, and the therapeutic potential of modulating the ECSS has stimulated development of many medicinal agents. Further, interest in the microbiome and its role in both human health and disease has drawn extraordinary attention. In 2008, the year the National Institutes of Health Common Fund launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), a Pub-Med search yielded 893 citations for “probiotics” and 520 for “human microbiome.” By 2016, the number for “microbiome” had grown to 6,074 while “probiotics” generated 1,620. This phenomenal growth has been driven by advances in sequencing and bioinformatics that have focused new light on microbial-host interactions and how microbes influence human health and the predisposition to disease. In addition, while sources of omega-3 fatty acids, a popular nutraceutical, are in decline, the industry is investigating several alternatives for these important nutrients. Sources of bioavailable EPA– and DHA-rich material are increasing, and it will hopefully translate to better access to this critical nutrient for the general population.