Harvard Men's Health Watch

Pot for the prostate?

Long before scientists learned to manufacture synthetic medications, folk healers relied on natural compounds derived from plants. Even today, herbal compounds are heavily promoted as "dietary supplements" and are widely used in various forms of alternative, or complementary, medicine. Although scientific studies that demonstrate benefit for plant-based supplements are few and far between, some compounds have become the building blocks of important mainstream medications. One example is acetylsalicylic acid, better known as aspirin; it's a synthetic chemical patterned after the salicylates in the extract of willow bark used by Hippocrates to treat pain and fever, some 2,400 years ago. Other examples include the malaria drug quinine, derived from cinchona bark, and the cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol), which comes from the Pacific yew tree.

Cannabis sativa is another plant that has found medicinal and ceremonial uses in many parts of the world since ancient times. Think of it by its common name, marijuana, and you'll recognize it as a highly controversial plant indeed. On the one hand, its mind-altering properties have made it an extremely popular drug of abuse. At the same time, advocates of medicinal marijuana tout its ability to relieve pain, combat chemotherapy-induced nausea, and treat glaucoma, among other things.

Marijuana itself raises complex legal, social, and economic issues that overshadow the considerable medical controversies. Most of the tempest swirls around smoked marijuana, but scientists are also studying various cannabinoids, chemical compounds derived from the plant itself. And research from Spain raises the possibility that certain cannabinoids may someday have a role in managing prostate cancer.

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