Botanical drugs, synergy, and network pharmacology: forth and back to intelligent mixtures

Planta Med. 2011 Jul;77(11):1086-98. doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1270904. Epub 2011 Mar 16.


For centuries the science of pharmacognosy has dominated rational drug development until it was gradually substituted by target-based drug discovery in the last fifty years. Pharmacognosy stems from the different systems of traditional herbal medicine and its "reverse pharmacology" approach has led to the discovery of numerous pharmacologically active molecules and drug leads for humankind. But do botanical drugs also provide effective mixtures? Nature has evolved distinct strategies to modulate biological processes, either by selectively targeting biological macromolecules or by creating molecular promiscuity or polypharmacology (one molecule binds to different targets). Widely claimed to be superior over monosubstances, mixtures of bioactive compounds in botanical drugs allegedly exert synergistic therapeutic effects. Despite evolutionary clues to molecular synergism in nature, sound experimental data are still widely lacking to support this assumption. In this short review, the emerging concept of network pharmacology is highlighted, and the importance of studying ligand-target networks for botanical drugs is emphasized. Furthermore, problems associated with studying mixtures of molecules with distinctly different pharmacodynamic properties are addressed. It is concluded that a better understanding of the polypharmacology and potential network pharmacology of botanical drugs is fundamental in the ongoing rationalization of phytotherapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Discovery
  • Drug Synergism*
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways
  • Pharmacognosy*
  • Phytotherapy
  • Plant Preparations / pharmacology*
  • Plants, Medicinal / chemistry*


  • Plant Preparations