Corn is a versatile crop that finds numerous applications as food, fuel and feed. However, corn also has important uses in medicine.

While health care may not immediately come to mind when people think of common corn uses, the plant plays a significant role in many medical applications. From making over-the-counter tablets more effective to aiding in cutting-edge treatments for disease, substances containing corn can help people get and stay healthy.

Learn more below about just a few of the ways corn and corn byproducts are used in medicine, pharmaceuticals and at health care facilities.

Corn Starch Is Used in Pharmaceuticals

Corn starch’s pharmaceutical applications contribute to improving medication effectiveness.

It plays a significant role in the pharmaceutical industry thanks to its versatile properties. One key application of corn starch in pharmaceuticals is as a binder, which means it helps to hold tablet formulations together and improve their strength.

Corn starch is also used to coat tablets and as a disintegrant, which helps in the breakdown and absorption of tablets or capsules ingested into the body. For medicines in this form to be effective, they must break down into smaller particles so they can be dissolved and absorbed. Corn starch is one of the ingredients used to effectively achieve this.

Protein Found in Corn May Help Fight Cancer

One of the future uses for corn in medicine could be in the fight against cancer.

Cancer affects many people, so researchers are always looking for new and improved technologies to fight the disease. One of the most common treatments involves chemotherapy, which slows the growth of and destroys cancer cells. While chemotherapy is often effective, it can have devastating side effects and kill or damage healthy cells along with the cancer.

However, there is a cutting-edge, anti-cancer treatment corn has shown promise in called nanoparticle technology. This treatment uses tiny particles to target cancer cells while reducing damage to surrounding healthy tissue. One of the challenges of nanoparticle technology is how to get the anti-cancer medicine to the cancer cells without losing effectiveness or harming healthy cells. That’s where Zein, a nontoxic protein  found within corn, has shown promise.

Research has found the Zein protein has shown the ability to act as a carrier to transport anti-cancer drugs to the cancer cells they are supposed to destroy. This includes, for example, transporting light-activated drugs that kill cancer cells with heat or chemical reactions, chemotherapy delivered directly to the tumor and gene therapy.

Discovered back in 1821, Zein has been used for years to make waxy coatings, films, inks and adhesives.

IV Solutions Contain Corn

A very common way corn is used in medicine is as a building block for the dextrose found in IV saline solutions. A sugar made from corn starch, dextrose in IV solutions provides energy for patients in the form of calories. It also is effective in helping patients with certain conditions reach and maintain a healthy blood-sugar level. Corn-based dextrose found in IV saline solutions also helps replace lost fluid and treat dehydration.

In addition to its use in IV saline solutions, dextrose also is used in medicine as an injection to treat insulin shock.  Beyond medicine, dextrose is commonly used in the food industry as a sweetener and flavor enhancer.

Ethanol and Citric Acid are Found in Hand Soap and Sanitizer

Corn-based products also are used in personal hygiene and to clean healthcare facilities, homes and businesses. It does this through ethanol and citric acid found in hand soap and sanitizers.

Ethanol is used in hand sanitizers because it kills most bacteria and viruses. In fact, it’s so effective that during the COVID-19 pandemic, health leaders urged the public to make sure their hand sanitizers contained at least 60% ethanol in order to make sure the product was effective.

Another corn-based cleaning agent is citric acid. While people naturally often associate citric acid with fruit, the fact is most of the citric acid found in the many products you use every day comes from corn. It’s made by fermenting corn-based sugar.

Another product commonly made from corn, lactic acid, also has cleaning and disinfectant qualities. Lactic and citric acid are both found in many sanitizers, soaps, disinfectants and other cleaning agents used in homes and businesses. Similar to citric acid, lactic acid can be manufactured by fermenting the sugars found in corn.

Finding the Next Big Role for Corn

Corn’s surprising role in health care is one of the reasons the Nebraska Corn Board continues to support research on corn uses. It’s such a versatile plant with so many beneficial uses, you never know where it will play a key role next.

Corn farmers grow healthy food, livestock feed and renewable fuel resources used around the world.  From renewable biofuel to cat litter and biodegradable plastic, corn farming supplies the building blocks for important parts of everyday life.

When it comes to the many uses of corn, we may just be scratching the surface!

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