From willow to aspirin: what history teaches us about the future
The story of aspirin may have started about 5000 years ago with a description of the
therapeutic use of willow in case of pain and fever. Throughout history willow bark and
meadowsweet were used in different forms in phytotherapy. Only after the chemical isolation of
salicylic acid from these plants in the 19 th century could a phytochemical approach be applied.
At the end of the 19 th century, acetylsalicylic acid was synthesized from salicylic acid. Soon the
substance became known worldwide as an analgesic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory
medicine. Despite its success, it took more than 70 years to discover the mechanism of action of
acetylsalicylic acid. Discovering this mechanism led to new therapeutic developments, more
particularly, the use as an antiplatelet drug that could protect patients with cardiovascular risks
against myocardial infarction and cerebral thrombosis. In the future aspirin may play an
important role in the prevention of cancer and chronic inflammatory diseases.
This narrative review demonstrates how careful observations, ethnopharmacological
evaluation of the use of medicinal plants (and more particularly willow species), phytochemical
investigation and pharmacological insight are a guarantee for scientific development for the
profit of patients.
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