04 January 2018

Medicines discovered by accident: Penicillin

Many of humanity’s greatest discoveries occurred as a result of either accidents or sheer luck. Probably one of the most important discoveries was Penicillin, the first antibiotic that has helped to save countless lives from bacterial infections.

For many years people wondered why the Ancient Egyptians used to apply poultices of mouldy bread to infected wounds and amazingly it wasn’t until 1928 that the answer to that age-old question was answered.

Alexander Fleming was a scientist working at St. Mary’s College London investigating influenza a major killer in his day. In 1918-19 million perished as a result of Spanish Flu. It wasn’t until he returned to work from a holiday in September 1928 that he noticed something odd. Whilst sorting through Petri dishes in his lab he noticed that one containing colonies of Staphylococcus, a rather unpleasant bacteria that cause sore throats and boils was different to the others. In the dish, there was a spot where mould was growing, and in the immediate area around the mould, the bacteria could not grow. A speck of matter had contaminated the dish to form a rare strain of Penicillium notatum. The area around it was clear suggesting that the mould had secreted something that could kill the bacteria.

Fleming went on to experiment with ‘mould juice’ and discovered that it could kill a large number of bacteria’s that were hazardous to human health. His next task was to isolate pure penicillin from the mould secretions.

It wasn’t until 1939 that Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and their colleagues at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University turned penicillin into a life-saving drug. With World War Two underway the need for penicillin increased dramatically, and it went on to save the lives of many wounded soldiers.


Antibiotic Resistance

The battle to stay ahead of evolving bacteria is one that we are currently losing. Too much use of antibiotics in the farming sector and oversubscription by GPs had resulted in the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. If new antibiotics are not created soon then, we may be heading back to a post-antibiotic future, one where bacterial infections can kill.

The World Health Organisation has urged the use of the drugs to be curbed in farming and GPS to refrain from subscribing them unless absolutely necessary. Whether such action will slow the growing resistance of harmful bacteria’s to antibiotics remains to be seen.

Did you know? It is useless to take antibiotics for a viral infection