The beginning of the antibiotics age; the penicillin discover

The fortunate mishap

Today’s entry feels different. Smells different. Like dust and aged wood I think. This time we’re talking about history, an ancient tale (not so ancient in fact) about the first antibiotic discovered, tested, isolated, and then produced at large scale. If you don’t live under a rock, you have probably heard about penicillin before. And for a reason. Penicillin changed the fight rules against bacteria.

This story starts with a Scottish scientist called Alexander Fleming. I don’t really want to give so many (boring) details about his life and childhood. So I’ll start in the middle of the thing.

Ware_Hitler's_Greatest_Ally
WWII advertisement about sepsis peril in any untreated wound

Year 1914, the begining of the First World War. The Great War. And Fleming was there,
serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. No need to say that there were a lot of severe injured people trough all this war, and the sepsis following an infected wound was a frequent problem that the antiseptics not only didn’t prevent, but favored. Fleming saw this problem during his service, even though he didn’t get too much attention when he reported that these antiseptics were killing the injured immunological defences more effectively than they were killing the bacteria. It seems he wasn’t a very skilled man in communication and promulgation.

 

Thus, after the war he continued investigating searching for other antibacterial substances alternatives. And he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme present in many body secretions, like saliva or mucus, that attacks Gram-positive bacteria. Although this may explain why we tend to lick the injured skin and why this may be an advantage in natural selection, lysozyme had little potential as mass produced antibiotic since it was a complex natural protein with several huge drawbacks as pharmaceutical compound.

Six years later, and after what I’m sure was a well deserved month of vacations with his family, he returned to the lab. And as he declared later: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did”.

Penicillium_notatum.jpg
Penicillium notatum growing in a petri dish. Image credit: Crulina 98CC BY-SA 3.0

We can say that Fleming wasn’t the tidy kind of scientist, and by that summer he had been working with Staphilococcus (a genus of gram-negative bacteria), and the bacterial cultures were stacked in a corner of his bench. One of them was invaded by a mold later identified as Penicillium notatum, and the bacteria surrounding the mold had been killed by it. “That’s funny” he said. Like an eureka proclamation. I really love scientists that find science, and life in general, amusing. You know what comes next, right?

In fact, it was nothing but a quick process. After successfully observing the substance produced by the Penicillium, in a first moment called by Fleming mold juice and penicillin a little after, and a lot of in vitro and in vivo assays, he tried to recruit an enough skilled chemist for it’s refinement. But again, it seems he wasn’t the best auctioneer of his own projects.

Staphylococcus_aureus_(AB_Test)
Different antibiotics disks inhibiting the growth of Staphilococcus aureus (yellowish-green) in a petri dish, just like the mold P. notatus would do.
Penicillin
Penicillin chemical structure

So years past, and Fleming even abandoned the project itself. But, a little after, something happened. Again, the war. What war? The Second World War. That many years spent Fleming investigating. And by the hand of an Oxford team composed by Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and Ernst Chain, with U.S. and British cash, and impeled by the need of a new antibiotic substance due to the war times, penicillin was isolated and then mass produced. So extensively produced that it was ready for treatment of all the allied forces injured when the war was still going.

The same Fleming warned about the abuse using this antibiotic and the resistant bacteria strains as a future problem, not only during the war, but the decades after. And after a few years, a huge number of bacteria were and are nowadays penicillin tolerant and don’t get killed by this drug. This way, the race between the creation of new antibiotics and the bacterial resistance to them started. And today, this race is still very contested!

Have a nice fortunate misshaped day, and I see you the next week.

 

 

 

 

 

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