Antibiotics and the Era of the “Magic Bullet” (Part One)


Currently, all bacterial infections are controlled by the use of antibiotics. In the past, diseases caused by bacteria caused countless deaths around the world.

The invention of penicillin paved the way for researchers. Mankind now had an effective ally, which guaranteed the survival of mankind. Similarly, the controlled manufacture of these drugs has completely revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry. Its invention is even one of the most remarkable discoveries of the 20th century.

First Mixtures Used As Antibiotics

2,500 years ago, soybean curd was administered in China to treat infectious diseases. This method is the earliest available evidence of the use of antibiotics.

There is also evidence of the use of molds as a treatment for infections. This method, called antibiosis, was also used by the Egyptians and Greeks. Later, in 1877, R. Koch and L. Pasteur discovered how a bacillus was able to prevent a bacterium from growing and thriving.

Research Conducted Before Fleming’s Discovery

Ernest Duchesne, a French physician, is considered the theoretical pioneer of penicillin. In 1897, he studied how certain molds could kill bacteria. Because of their properties, they were used as antibiotics.

Paul Ehrlich, a German bacteriologist and physician, discovered Salvarsan (now known as arsphenamine) in 1908. This antibiotic was mainly used to treat syphilis, but was also used to treat other infectious diseases. It was then in Germany that the modern era of antibiotic therapy began to develop, which was already trying to establish itself around the year 1909.

Another doctor considered a pioneer in the development of penicillin is Clodomiro Picado . During the years 1915 and 1927, he studied the property of inhibition of fungi called “penicillium”. These prevented the proliferation of various infectious agents such as streptococci and staphylococci.

Alexander Fleming

During an experiment conducted by Fleming, which consisted of cultivating a bacterium, a small accident occurred: the dish was contaminated by fungi. Fleming then observed that the culture channel surrounding the mold did not contain any bacteria. He soon realized that this happened because the fungus secreted a kind of substance that prevented bacteria from proliferating.

In 1928, his findings were published in the scientific media, although he was unable to purify the material. The fungus used in the experiment belonged to the Penicillium family, so he named his discovery penicillin.

Studies Conducted after Alexander Fleming’s Discovery

Florey, in collaboration with E. Chain, improved Fleming’s formula by creating a more purified product. In 1930, Cecil Paine, a student of Fleming’s, applied penicillin to newborns for the first time. They suffered from ophthalmia neonatorum, but after receiving the drug, the disease disappeared. This treatment proved to be a resounding success. However, Paine did not publish the success of his investigations.

Instead, Chaine, Florey and Fleming published their research, taking full credit for penicillin’s effectiveness against pests. These three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the importance of their discovery in 1945.

Golden Age of Antibiotics, Widespread Use

Without a doubt, the Second World War accelerated the research and application of this drug. The urgency of treating war wounds and avoiding the resulting infections made the improvement of penicillin a real need.

It was therefore at this time that the first industrially and commercially produced antibiotic was created. It was gramicidin, created by René Dubos in 1939, which was widely used to treat wounds and ulcers.

Thus, as early as 1940, pharmaceutical companies began to produce these drugs. They were made accessible to everyone, even the press of the time nicknamed them “magic bullet”.

What Are Antibiotics?

Well, they are powerful compounds, manufactured to fight the ills caused by bacteria. The first premise of these is that they have selective toxicity.

This selective toxicity must be greater than the toxicity of the invading organisms, which in this case are bacteria. It is therefore a powerful aid to the natural defense mechanism of the human body. Its main function is to monitor the evolution of the infection until it is destroyed. In other words, the antibiotic can be both bactericidal (eliminate the bacteria) and bacteriostatic (inhibit the proliferation of bacteria).

You now know a bit more about the history and invention of antibiotics and if you want to keep learning about this magical bullet as they used to call it, come back to read the second part of our article. Until then, what do you think of antibiotics? And how frequently do you use them? Let us know in the comments below.

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