Uncovering New Opportunities for Natural Products

The world around us is filled with myriad potential therapies.

Discovering promising new drug candidates is extremely difficult, especially given limited knowledge of the mechanisms behind many illnesses. While many scientists focus on developing and testing synthetic molecules, the natural world also provides a huge diversity of compounds yet to be fully explored that could potentially help in the fight against disease. Examples like the powerful antibiotic penicillin produced by the Penicillium fungus and the malaria-killing quinine chemical found in the bark of the cinchona tree show that nature abounds with effective treatments for numerous maladies.

Finding treatments amongst the millions of chemicals produced by the world’s animals, plants, and microorganisms is no small endeavor, but the IRP is up to the challenge. Our researchers put great effort towards the discovery of new natural molecules that affect biological processes implicated in cancer, antibiotic resistance, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases, and more. IRP investigators have isolated cancer-fighting chemicals from plants, discovered new natural antimalarials, and identified markers of health and disease that enable scientists to assess how potential therapeutics affect the human body.

Critical to IRP efforts is our comprehensive collection of natural products, accessible by researchers both within and outside the IRP. Our Natural Products Repository — the world’s largest — includes more than 170,000 molecules isolated from tens of thousands of plants, marine invertebrates, algae, and microbes from around the world. IRP investigators also have access to the NCI-60 Human Tumor Cell Lines Screen, a system that tests both synthetic and natural chemicals for anti-cancer effects using cells derived from 60 different types of tumors. Moreover, using pattern recognition algorithms, this process can provide hints as to the mechanisms that may underlie a promising compound’s therapeutic effects. And once a potential future drug has been identified, the IRP provides critical assistance for moving it through pre-clinical testing and on to clinical trials in patients at the NIH Clinical Center.

Every day, the IRP’s cutting-edge resources and infrastructure combined with world-class biologists, chemists, and computational experts advances discovery of health-promoting and disease-fighting natural products. The IRP constantly expands its efforts to mine the natural world for new cures by:

  • Testing large numbers of natural chemicals for therapeutic effects
  • Growing our library of compounds derived from a hugely diverse set of organisms
  • Refining methods for sifting through large numbers of molecules for potentially useful treatments
  • Discovering new ways to measure the effects of promising molecules
  • Improving the design and efficiency of clinical trials to more quickly move drug candidates from the bench to the bedside

Explore these pages for more information about the past, present, and future of IRP research on natural therapeutics:

Check out all 12 of the domains in which we are Accelerating Science to learn about how IRP scientists are tackling important biomedical challenges.

This page was last updated on Wednesday, January 12, 2022