The evolution of pharmacology in Mexico

Throughout history, natural drug resources in Mexico have been used to treat several diseases, thanks to the country’s ample flora and fauna. Mexico is in fourth place among the 17 countries considered ‘megadiverse’ as it has almost 70% of the world's species diversity, these species are mainly vascular plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. At least 5,000 of these species are endemic and between 10 and 15% of the terrestrial species are concentrated in only 1.3% of the country’s landmass.

During pre-Hispanic times, Mesoamerican cultures domesticated many plant species, including maize, tomatoes, amaranth, vanilla, squashes, cotton, cacao, several varieties of chili peppers, nopales, and beans. Mesoamerican cultures also used nearly 2,000 wild and cultivated species for food, textiles, construction, and therapeutic purposes.

In 1552, the Colegio de Tlatelolco, the first and oldest European school of higher learning in the Americas, produced ’Libellus de medicinalibus Indorum herbis’, also known as the Cruz-Badiano codex. This important work is the first catalogue of indigenous Nahuatl medicine, and it describes the pharmacological properties of various remedies indigenous people used to prevent and cure diseases, mixing information from pre-Hispanic and colonial Mexico. This codex, although written in Latin, presents concepts in Nahuatl – referring to plants as indigenous people would have known them.

This codex was taken to Europe and kept by doctors Charles Upson Clark, Lynd Thorndike, and Giuseppe Gabrieli in the Vatican library until 1929. It was not until 1964 that the Mexican Social Security Institute published the first Spanish version of this document in Mexico. Although some of the remedies and medicines present in the original text may not be effective today, they are an important record of the history and development of medicines in the region. Several of the pharmaceutical concepts in the text are still in use today, including pharmaceutical forms and routes of administration.

After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico was eventually renamed to the National and Pontifical University of Mexico. Following the establishment of Medical Sciences Institute on 23 October 1833, the University began to bring in new courses, including pharmacy.  At that time, if you wanted to study pharmacy, you had to have already completed courses in Latin, French, Physics, Botany, and Chemistry.

The Pharmaceutical Academy of Mexico (AFM) was founded in 1838 and its President was Leopoldo Río de la Loza. In 1846, the AFM published the first Mexican pharmacopoeia. The pharmacopoeia aimed to establish common methodologies and nomenclature for preparing medicines. This was the second American Pharmacopoeia, following publication of the United States pharmacopoeia in 1820.
Between 1876 and 1910, several disciplines and institutions were developed. This included the National Medical Institute (IMN) in 1888, an institution focused on study health and medicine, including the pharmacology and toxicology of medicinal plants. The IMN published several works, among them the ‘Materia Médica Mexicana’, which described the characteristics of Mexican plants and the most common practices developed in Mexican pharmacies. IMN was divided into five sections. The Experimental Physiology section determined the physiology and pharmacology of substances and tested their efficacy through animal experimentation. In the Clinical Therapeutics section, the active ingredients were administered to hospital patients.

Two Mexican pharmacologists made important contributions to the development of modern experimental biomedical science. The first was Dr Rafael Méndez, who was born in Spain in 1906 and became a Mexican citizen in 1949. Dr Mendez helped to create the Mexican School of Pharmacology. His work was first published in 1928 in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics with the title ‘Antagonism of Adrenaline by Ergotamine’, when he was only 22 years old. His work supported the understanding of the quantitative theory of the dose-effect relationship, and the interaction with antagonists. In 1946, he participated in the foundation of the Department of Pharmacology at the National Institute of Cardiology.

Dr Efraín G. Pardo (born in Michoacán, Mexico in 1922) trained in pharmacology at the University of Michigan and became a Professor of General Physiology. Later, he became a Professor of Pharmacology at the National School of Medicine of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He began his research in Mexico at the Institute of Tropical Diseases, and in 1949 his first extensive international publication appeared in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

In 1966, the Mexican Association of Pharmacology was formed and Dr Antonio Morales Aguilera, a student of Dr Rafael Méndez, became the first President. The Association’s objectives are to promote pharmacology research and teaching and to bring people working in pharmacology and related subjects together. Another of Dr Morales’ important achievements was the creation of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) on the 1 July 1971. He also established their postgraduate programme for Pharmacological and Toxicological Research

In October 1982, the Miles Institute of Experimental Therapeutics joined the department. In 2000, the department’s researchers founded the Department of Pharmacobiology. The new department focused on finding therapeutics for diseases afflicting Mexicans. They also wanted to find ways to increase life expectancies worldwide. The department offered two programmes, a Master (MSc) and a Doctorate in Sciences, specialising in Neuropharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. So far, approximately 219 Master's degree and 179 doctoral students have graduated. CINVESTAV Zacatenco (Mexico City) established the Department of Pharmacology, in July 2001. As of 2019, the department had trained 187 Masters of Science and 102 Doctors of Science.

According to data reported in 2019, there are at least 55 universities in Mexico offering pharmacy-related degrees. However, pharmacology-specific programs are aimed more at postgraduates, and there are various Master and PhD programmes for both basic and clinical pharmacology at different institutes around Mexico.

As you have read in this article, the discipline of pharmacology has evolved and developed in Mexico over many years. To continue this development, it is important that we continue to explore new lines of research and promote the specialised subject area of pharmacology. The rapid increase in the incidence of some diseases means it is essential to have enough people working in this area – proposing new pharmacological therapies and ensuring they are appropriately targeted. I believe that ultimately, promoting pharmacology will make people safer. Achieving this will require governmental support, funding, and collaboration between institutions to generate the tools that current and future pharmacologists need to continue to make global impacts.


Figure 1. A timeline of pharmacology developments in Mexico.


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Published: 24 Nov 2021

About the author

Yazmin Márquez Flores

Yazmin Márquez Flores is a Teacher and researcher at the National School of Biological Sciences, Mexico. She obtained her bachelor´s degree in Industrial Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 2006, her MSc in 2008 and her PhD in Chemicobiological sciences in 2012. During 2014, Yazmin completed a postdoctoral stay at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Seville, Spain. Her research experience is in the fields of pharmacology and toxicology of natural products and synthesis compounds with anti-inflammatory activity.

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