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Colchicine — a short history of an ancient drug

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From poisons and potions to promising new therapies for cardiovascular disease

When one considers the drug colchicine, it generally draws thoughts of gout therapy, and its most notorious side effect, diarrhoea. However, colchicine is more than just a treatment for gout; it is a drug rich with centuries of medicinal history, travelling the globe from Asia to America, from its humble beginnings as a poison, to exciting novel therapies for cardiovascular disease. Here we recount a short history of colchicine.

Colchicine has been known by a plethora of names over time, including colchicum, colchicon, hermodactyl, surugen and ephemeron. For the purposes of convenience in this article we will refer to it as colchicine.

To understand the drug we use today, we need to explore its botanical origins. Colchicine is an alkaloid compound found in a variety of plants, most abundantly in Colchicum autumnale, a beautiful violet flower (Box). It is a perennial plant of the lily family and has been known by a variety of nicknames including wild saffron, autumn crocus and, more exotically, “mort au chien”, (death to dogs), “bulbus agrestis” (the wild bulb), “naked ladies” (because flowers appeared in clusters out of the ground with no associated leaves), and finally “filis ante patrem” (translated “son before…