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The History Of Antibiotics - part 2

The 19th and early 20th centuries

Several new antibiotics were discovered as well as developed during the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Many of them were discovered while scientists and doctors were working to isolate and develop 'good' or beneficial bacteria that could be employed in treating infectious ailments. In fact, several different and diverse antibiotic substances were discovered during this period.

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It may be mentioned here that the alternative stream of medicine homeopathy is using minute amounts of substances that would generally result in the ailment in a healthy individual to hasten the disease process in a sick person with a view to cure the ailment. Homeopathic medicine is used traditionally in Germany, where numerous doctors are trained in this alternative stream of medicine and there are several lay homeopathic practitioners too.

Homeopathic medicine was highly popular in Europe as well as North America from the middle of the 1880s up to the turn of the century. Nevertheless, with the rise of the pharmaceutical companies, traditional medicine started taking a monopoly on medical care. A great deal of the infrastructure related to conventional medicine, such as hospitals, medical schools, X-ray machines and research and diagnostic facilities and others, were promoted by the pharmaceutical companies. This resulted in the domination of the pharmaceutical firms along with conventional medicine in the medical field. During the early part of the 1990s, the American Medical Association (AMA) ensured a powerful political lobby to shut down several homeopathic colleges and hospitals. It is interesting to note that within just two decades, the number of homeopathic hospitals in America dropped to just seven by 1920.

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In fact, the American Medical Association had found a strong partner in the pharmaceutical companies and this possibly explains the substantial clout enjoyed by the AMA. In addition, it also throws light on why majority of the medical researches are sponsored by the pharmaceutical firms and the reason behind medical students being taught pharmacology or the use of medicaments as the key ways of treating patients. Interestingly, during the 19th century several experiments were undertaken with a view to discover a supernatural, potent antibacterial substance which would help the human race to eliminate the bane of infection. Experiments undertaken in Paris in 1877, showed the benefits of employing harmless, 'good' bacteria to cure pathogenic (disease bearing) bacteria, while they did not eliminate the pathogens.

In Paris itself, Louis Pasteur had explained the advantageous influences of injecting animals with safe soil bacteria to fight anthrax (an infectious, often life-threatening disease of the animals). Several other experiments dealing with anthrax and cholera also corroborated these findings and established that harmless bacteria have the aptitude to slow down the disease-causing or pathogenic bacteria.

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Meanwhile, scientists in Germany were successful in isolating an antibacterial substance known as pyocyanase. When this substance was used experimentally on animals, it proved to be highly effectual. In effect, the results were so thrilling that tests were conducted in humans who were suffering from a wide range of infections. Nevertheless, the results of the trials conducted on humans were a great let down - in fact, pyocyanase was detected to be extremely poisonous. As a result, all studies undertaken with this antibacterial substance were stopped.

In 1910, scientists found a more potential agent known as salvarsan, which was basically a dye, demonstrating to be very effectual in treating the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. Nevertheless, toxicity of the substance in humans proved to be the main obstacle in developing salvarsan as well as its extensive use.

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In fact, the two main factors that hindered the progress of the researchers were the toxicity problems and their failure to discover other antibacterial substance. As a result, the enthusiasm in the search for the 'magical antibacterial', which was expected to help humanity in avoiding contagious diseases, the main cause of deaths in those times, started waning.

However, the wave started changing with the discovery of penicillin by Dr. Alexander Fleming. After having distinguished himself in medical studies, in 1908, Dr. Fleming undertook research work in pathology. During the early phase of his research work, he was successful in isolating lysozyme, an enzyme present in human tears and nasal mucus. This enzyme was found to be gently antibacterial; however, it was not very effectual in combating most of the infections suffered by humans.

While trying to develop the bacteria Staphylococcus spp. on an agar plate (a saucer used for preparing bacterial cultures) in 1928, Dr. Fleming detected that the development of this bacterium was slowed down by a mold which had contaminated the plate by accident. He immediately made up his mind to identify the mold that was ultimately known as Penicillium notatum. This discovery excited Dr. Fleming and he undertook preparing culture of the mold in a unique broth and subsequently injected the broth into a number of his patients who were suffering from different types of contagious disease. The results of the culture were very heartening and the broth was found to be non-toxic. However, it was unfortunate that Dr. Fleming did not make sufficient amount of this broth and, thus, his experiment was somewhat restricted. In 1929, when Dr. Fleming presented a paper regarding the findings of his experiment, his colleagues in the medical profession were not very impressed or did not express much interest.

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Incidentally, it took another few years for two talented researchers, Dr. Florey and Dr. Chain, who were working at Oxford University in the late 1930s and early part of 1940s, to appreciate the significance of the findings of Dr. Fleming's research. In fact, the pioneering work of these two researchers helped to bring penicillin into clinical use. Dr. Flory was an Australian physician who had been to Oxford on a scholarship to study pathology. On the other hand, Dr. Chain was a chemist from Germany who had escaped from the Nazis in the 1930s and went to England for rest.

While studying at Oxford University, Dr. Florey was very keen to form a team of researchers who were concerned about discovering effectual antibacterial substances. While he was, in fact, the microbiologist and clinician, Dr. Chain was the chemist having proficiency in isolating, sanitizing and examining the properties of such substances. Dr. Florey's research group comprised of the 20 best scientists working in Britain at that time. These scientists concentrated their focus on the experiments of Dr. Alexander Fleming and worked at sanitizing penicillin as well as examining its efficiency.

In one of the laboratory experiments, the group of scientists injected 50 mice with a fatal dose of Streptococci spp. bacterium. Among these, 25 animals were given frequent penicillin injections, while the control group comprising the other 25 mice was not given any penicillin injection. After a lapse of 10 days, 24 of the 25 mice treated with penicillin succeeded in surviving, while all the mice in the control group expired. Such amazing results were published in the reputed medical journal 'The Lancet' on August 24, 1940.

In the following year, scientists from the Oxford University conducted their first clinical trial of penicillin. The patient was a 43-year-old policeman who had been suffering from septicemia or blood poisoning. The patient was on the verge of death and hence, Dr. Florey and Dr. Chain decided to experiment the apparently extreme measure of administering penicillin injection intramuscularly at intervals of three hours for five days. The scientists noticed a distinct improvement in the condition of the patient within just 24 hours. By the fourth day, the patient's fever has disappeared and he started eating again. However, eventually he succumbed to his ailment. Notwithstanding the death of the patient, it became obvious that penicillin was very effective in combating infections.

The next challenge of these scientists from Oxford University was to find a method for large-scale penicillin production keeping in view the economic aspect as well. Incidentally, as all their efforts to obtain support from industries for their research proved to be futile in Britain and hence, they visited the United States in the summer of 1941. In the United States, the scientists were successful in getting the support of several pharmaceutical firms for the industrial production of penicillin. The pharmaceutical companies which agreed to extend help included Abbot, Merck, Pfizer, Squibb, Commercial Solvents and Winthrop. In fact, help from these American pharmaceutical firms made penicillin a remedial certainty.

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