A Brief History of Antibiotics That Will Leave You Intrigued

Anuya Waghmare Apr 19, 2019
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Antibiotics have saved countless lives since their accidental discovery in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming. Let's take a look about the interesting story behind this and the role of antibiotics in our day-to-day lives.
Antibiotics are natural secretions of one organism which destroy or inhibit the growth of the other. 'Antibiotics' was a term coined by Paul Vuillemin in the year 1889, from 'antibiosis' which means 'against life'.
The discovery of antibiotics is one of the most important breakthroughs which revolutionized medical science. Though preparations from various plants or molds were used since ancient times, the relation between the treatment of diseases and antimicrobial properties of these mixtures was never given much thought.
It was only in the late 19th century that the germ theory of diseases gained acceptance and explained the role of microorganisms as causative agents of various diseases.
This led scientists to venture into the depths of this phenomenon to seek various methods which could destroy or inhibit the growth of these disease-causing pathogens. Let us see the history behind the discovery of these wonder drugs that changed the face of medicine.

History and Discovery of Antibiotics

The late 1800s was an era when the germ theory of diseases was gaining gradual acceptance. According to this theory, microbes were termed as the causative agents of various ailments. This led scientists to discover different drugs in order to kill and overcome these disease-causing bacteria.
Joseph Lister began his research on molds that hindered the growth of bacteria.
Louis Pasteur discovered methods to kill bacteria and laid the groundwork for this important breakthrough in medicine. In 1877, he showed that anthrax―a bacterial disease―can be controlled by injecting soil bacteria.
In 1888, the German scientist E.de Freudenreich isolated pyocyanase from bacterium Bacillus pyocyaneus which stunted the growth of other bacteria. However, pyocyanase failed the clinical trials and was proved to be unstable and poisonous. Hence, though it was the first antibiotic to be discovered, its development into an effective drug was not possible.
Then came Sir Alexander Fleming, a British scientist, who reported in the early 1920s that human tears contain an antibacterial agent called lysozome which can lyse bacterial cells. This would have been the end of the road for antibiotics, had it not been for the serendipitous discovery of penicillin.
It so happened that after returning from a vacation, Fleming looked through a set of Staphylococcus aureus bacterial culture plates that he had left out. He observed that a blue-green mold Penicillium notatum had contaminated the plates and bacteria around that area had ceased to exist.
Fleming hypothesized that a substance secreted by the mold was responsible for the breakdown of bacteria. Fleming actually rediscovered penicillin. A French medical student Ernest Duchesne had originally discovered Penicillium and its antibiotic nature.
However, he failed to report the connection between the fungus and the substance that possessed antibacterial properties. Penicillium was, thus, forgotten until Fleming's rediscovery. The process of synthesis of penicillin as a drug was invented by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley in the early 1940s.
These scientists from England and the US worked together to produce large quantities of the drug. The importance of penicillin as an antibiotic was established only during the World War II during which it saved countless lives of wounded soldiers. Its effectiveness to cure infections and non-toxic nature increased the use of penicillin to a great extent.
Research for development of new antibiotics churned out various new substances, and apart from the natural antibiotics, synthetic ones were also researched. This led a German scientist Gerhard Domagk to discover Prontosil in 1932, which is a sulfonamide drug. It opened up new vistas of research in the treatment of diseases.
Dr. Selman Waksman isolated many new antibiotics, two of which were streptomycin and neomycin that were extensively used in treating various diseases in plants, animals, and humans. This overuse of antibiotics and churning out of new antibacterials during this era led to the evolution of new species of bacteria which became resistant to antibiotics.

Emergence of Antibiotic Resistance

Sir Alexander Fleming, in 1945, warned that excessive use of antibiotics may lead to the selection of resistant bacteria. He had experimentally derived such resistant bacteria by changing the conditions, dosage, and exposure of these bacteria to the antibiotic.
The early years were the booming era of antibiotics, when new antibiotics were continuously developed. However, in the later years, there was no major breakthrough or new discovery that took place. Many bacterial strains, since then, have become resistant to age-old antibiotics.
The emergence of resistant bacteria is an evolutionary process. Inappropriate treatment, self-prescription, over-the-counter misuse, incomplete prescription course, and antibiotic abuse have led to mutations in bacteria. This has led to several strict actions to lessen the use of antibiotics.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. So, if you are suffering from cold or flu, antibiotics won't help. Hence, getting a medical checkup done by your physician and completing the entire prescribed dose is the most effective way of treating these diseases.
The resistant bacteria called "superbugs" have drained the antibiotic pipeline. A report released by Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) in April 2013 expressed grave concern on this weak pipeline of antibiotics to fight the growing resistance of the disease-causing bacteria. Since 2009, only two new antibiotics have been approved in the US.
A recent report by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the resistance of bacteria is growing, and 20% infections in the hospitals in the USA involve bacteria that are resistant to multiple drugs.
Considering the grave situation of antibiotic development, it seems like bacteria are emerging as winners. Research is still being done in this regard, and we just hope that something is in the offing, which will save us from this serious situation and produce new, innovative, and effective methods of dealing with these "super bugs."