Decades ago, the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) recognized nature as a major source of potential anticancer compounds, and established the Natural Products Branch (NPB) in 1960 to screen natural product materials for pharmacological activity. Paclitaxel (Taxol®), derived from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), is a prominent example of a successful plant-based anticancer drug from the NPB. Yew has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and in 1966 the NCI singled out Pacific yew in a massive screen of 35,000 natural products. Paclitaxel and its semisynthetic derivative docetaxel are now first-line treatment options for a number of cancers—including breast, ovarian, and lung.
Natural products are important sources of pharmacologically active compounds, which often form the basis of both CAM and conventional medicine. On one hand, natural products are often used as primary therapies (or to complement conventional therapies) despite uncertain effectiveness or safety. On the other hand, natural products have given rise to numerous conventional drugs, which are widely used today as first-line treatments for numerous conditions. As herbal products (and dietary supplements in general) continue to grow in popularity, patients and health care providers need to be aware of potential herb-drug interactions and other safety issues. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness of many CAM therapies, and how to reach a balance between the potential benefits and risks. Reliable sources of information are also crucial for patient and providers to make educated and evidence-based decision