A "natural extract" is really a highly complex substrate, being the chemical imagine of the high number of chemical equilibria responsible for the life. It usually consists of hundreds (or more!) different
organic molecules and oligoelements. One of the major aims of the phytochemists of the last century was to individuate the natural substances exhibiting biological activity and to determine their structure.
The further step, based on the in-deep knowledge of organic chemistry, was the development of the chemical synthesis of such molecules and their derivatives, leading to their cheap production
(at costs lower than those due to extensive purification steps) and, presumably, to a higher stability of the pharmaceutical drug.
However it has been shown that the biological activity of a natural extract is often different than that of the bioactive components isolated or of synthetic origin. To explain this behavior, it was proposed a different hypothesis from that generally accepted, based on the presence of phenomena of biological synergism between different chemical entities present in the natural substrate. Alternatively to, or aside to, the synergic aspects, it must be considered that in natural extracts different "molecular interactions", arising from the high complexity of the natural matrix, can occur, with the formation of "molecular complexes" according to the rules of supramolecular chemistry. The formation of "molecular complexes" between the active compound and other molecules (or trace elements) present in the natural environment, influences molecular species conformations affecting the interactions with the receptor sites.
Science is historically based on the assumption that the information on the individual components of a system are sufficient to explain the whole. Over time, however, it has become increasingly clear that there are circumstances in which the "complex interactions" between the components produce a behavior that would not have predicted investigating the individual parts. This is also why in science, so even in the medical field, a long debate is ongoing increasingly deepened, as to which is the right approach to the study of phenomena involving Man and his health. Today, more and more, we need a comprehensive and integrated understanding of living systems, as the reductionist research strategies alone do not allow a full understanding of certain phenomena, especially those involved in pathological states. In this frame the activity of natural products with living bodies requires a further comment. The biological activity of a molecule is related to its effective interaction with the receptor. But how did the receptor site develop? It is reasonable to assume that it developed over millions of years, in response to the structural conformations of the molecular species in the natural environment encountered by living beings. According to evolutionary theory, a combination of mutation, selections and impulses led to the origin of phenotypes with well defined characteristics. Whatever the evolutionary paths that led to a given receptor structure, its present conformation is the result of multiform interactions with exogenous and endogenous ligands. The presence of a receptor in an organism is the final result of several orders of interactions of natural selection, and it seems reasonable to assert that its response is physiologically better adapted to structures found in nature.
Today there is a deep knowledge on the main components of a natural substrate, but what is generally lacking is the description of the whole "chemical panorama" of the natural extract. This is a problems also from a regulatory point of view and Aboca is developing a specific research program devoted to this aspect. Mass spectrometry has played and still plays a key role in this research. It is highly effective in the fingerprinting as well as in the identification, structural characterization and quantitation of various components, such as volatile molecules, polyphenols, terpenes, alkaloids, saponins, aminoacids, peptides, proteins, inorganic elements, organosulfur, vitamins, oligo- and polysaccharides, etc. Mass spectrometry may helps researcher daily work to describe "natural extract" and/or "natural product" in a comprehensive way by means of different, highly specific MS methods. In fact, the impressive technological and methodological improvements of mass spectrometry and its coupling with molecular separation processes yielded highly sensitive, specific, fast, robust and validated methods that are fundamental tools in the natural product sciences, pharma sciences and technology.
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