Author Archives: angelaalissa

Morphine, Nicotine, and Caffeine

Morphine, nicotine, and caffeine. These molecules, though seemingly different, have some things in common; they share the common history of being factors in the Opium Wars, are all alkaloids, and have each had a profound influence shaping modern society in aspects ranging from medicine to economics to recreation. The first molecule, morphine, comes from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. In previous generations, it was used as a method of enhancing creativity, as a medical herb, and as an intoxicant. Today it continues its use in the medical world as it frequently serves as a strong pain killer; yet it frequently becomes a subject of intense addiction because of its euphoric, sedative qualities (morphine gets its name from Morpheus, the Roman god of dreams). The basic chemistry behind this molecule follows a rule that is simply enough known as the “morphine rule”. The morphine rule states that “a benzene ring, quaternary carbon atom, a CH2-CH2 group, and a tertiary N atom” must be present and in sequence. The reason that morphine is able to successfully relieve pain is that it has the ability to mimic the action of endorphins (the molecules responsible for happiness and pleasure). Although morphine was, and is, effective as a narcotic, the addiction and side effects it was causing led the Bayer and Company laboratory to create a new and improved form of morphine (or so they thought). This new form was created by using the acylation reaction that had previously been used to create aspirin. The new derivative was called diacetylmorphine and was even stronger than morphine. While that served as a benefit since it could be used in smaller doses, it did not allow for the chemists to achieve their goal because diacetylmorphine, more commonly known as Heroin nowadays, became “one of the most powerfully addictive substances known”.

The second molecule, nicotine (the major alkaloid in tobacco), was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus who discovered it when he landed in the “New World”. He saw it being used in a multitude of ways: it was inhaled or smoked into people’s nostrils, chewed or snuffed, and inhaled directly from burning masses of the Nicotiana plant (a more potent variety of modern-day tobacco that was said to cause hallucinations) during ceremonies. When Columbus brought nicotine to Europe, its inhabitants were quick to use and cultivate it, however not everyone was so readily accepting. Many criticized it for being dangerous and some places, such as Russia, even went as far as to outlaw it altogether. These may have created mere roadblocks, but did not halt the spread and influence of tobacco. The reason for its long-lasting admiration stems from the fact that it has a tendency to, more often than not, lead its users to develop addictions. Tobacco’s addictive quality can be understood by looking at its chemical makeup and biological influences. Nicotine acts as a stimulant as well as a depressant. After the stimulation wears off, it causes heart rate and blood circulation to slow down and oxygen to be delivered to the brain slower. To counteract these effects, users turn to tobacco again in order to stimulate their body’s activities. Nonetheless, nicotine has proven to be a substance of great influence. It has created copious addictions which have led to health issues, relationship complications, and, more positively, a source of economic prosperity for some.

The last molecule, caffeine, is probably the most common amongst the most people of all ages and social statures. It is found in coffee, tea, and chocolate, among other things. From cafes in Venice to the ever-so-famous Boston Tea Party, there is no doubt that caffeine has impacted lives of the past and present alike. Caffeine, like nicotine in a way, is a stimulant. Contrary to popular belief however, caffeine does not wake us up, it rather masks feelings of sleepiness. This is due to the fact that caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine, which is the chemical responsible for inducing sleep. Aside from its obvious pleasurable quirks, it also holds multiple medical purposes including asthma relief, migraine treatment, and a diuretic, to name a few. Its recreational uses has increased steadily with the emergence of chain coffee shops like Starbucks and individually packaged chocolate bars found everywhere from gas station convenience stores to five-star restaurants. There is no doubt that each of the alkaloids have had a profound influence of society and I think Le Couteur and Burreson do an adequate job of touching on those details. They mention the basic principles that connect them all together; their roles in the Opium Wars and the fact that they all can, and do, result in addiction. I think it’s important that for each of them they mentioned not only the negative but also the positive effects that have been produced because with every molecule in this book, as well as those mentioned, there is always a reaction of consequences that circle between good and bad but in the end always result in the same residing fact; that they shaped the world we know today.

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The Pill: A Story of Progress, Prevention, and Perspective

In a time when the role of women was under great scrutiny, it is not surprising that the development of The Pill induced a bit of controversy. From questions of morality and religious disagreement to the pressing issue of gender equality, norethindrone (AKA “the pill”) has long since its emergence in the 60’s been not only a source of immense debate but also a major sign of progress; scientifically and socially speaking. As the great philosopher and author Plato said; “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Fighting against high rates of infant mortality and maternal death, many women aimed to have as many children as possible to guarantee that some, if any, made it to maturity. With the availability and convenience of antibiotics and antiseptics in the middle of the twentieth century however, women were now faced with the problem of having too many children. Thus was born the “necessity” to prevent and reduce conception, and from it stemmed the need for an oral contraceptive.

The solution to this problem was norethindrone, the first oral contraceptive. The development of this contraceptive was based on the concept of a naturally occurring biological event; when a woman is pregnant she cannot conceive again. The reason for this is the presence of the pregnancy hormone progesterone. So if scientists could synthesis progesterone and make it easily ingested, then the suppression of ovulation would become possible, and the first oral contraceptive would be born. Two problems delayed its development. First, it was difficult to find a way to take progesterone orally; it was inconvenient to have to inject it and would lose it effectiveness when mixed with stomach acids. Second, an outside source of the chemical was yet to be discovered (or at least a cheap, easily accessible source). These obstacles were conquered by chemist Russell Marker, who began experimenting with the sarsaparilla vine. The vine produced a compound which he called sarsasaponin. The compound was extremely close to synthesizing progesterone, but there was a side group in the four-ring steroid system that had to be removed before it could produce his desired product. The removal of this side group became known as the “Marker degradation”, and is still referred to as such. Marker later discovered that he could find more of his starting material in wild yams from Mexico. Carl Djerassi took Marker’s work a step further and developed a cheaper method as well as allowed the compound to be taken orally. He concluded that in removing a CH3 group, the molecule would be able to withstand its encounter with potent stomach acid. Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick took the pill yet another step further by having it transformed into a pill that could be “swallowed like aspirin” and by testing it to reduce the number of side effects that accompanied its consumption.

Le Couteur and Burreson merely introduce the impact that the pill has had on society and science. In the case of its scientific impact, the pill allowed for the invention of performance-enhancing drugs copiously used by athletes. Regardless of what light that fact is seen in, it is one of major influence. Socially speaking is where the pill truly takes center stage. As the authors state, the pill is associate with “the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the women’s liberation movement, the rise of feminism, the increased percentage of women in the workplace, and even the breakdown of the family”. That statement alone shows that the pill has undoubtedly had a major impact on men and women alike; women who benefited from and men who were affected by women’s rise in society’s hierarchy. There is an infinitely accumulating list of ways it has influenced aspects varying from relationships, education, business, and politics, among the many others. The pill allowed women to wait longer to have children so they could go to school longer than in previous generations and for some women to go to school for the first time. This increase in education amongst women allowed them to have more opportunities in the workplace. Additionally, they were able to spend more time working as they could now control the number of maternity leaves taken. Women were now able to take control of the decisions they made with their body without having to worry about the consequences. That is the only reason I have any skepticism about the pill; women take advantage of their freedom and develop an air of ignorance in their choices of what to do with their bodies. However, it is an amazing feat that women do have the freedom to be ignorant, which is possible thanks to the pill. Gender equality was long overdue when the pill made its debut, but it was better late than never. The pill paved the way for women’s suffrage, an increase in divorce rates, and a voice for women that could no longer be stifled. Whether it was a conscious effort or not, I believe that the true necessity that lead to the invention of the pill was the necessity for tolerance and equal opportunity.





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