DISCOVERING PENICILLIN - IT ACTUALLY TOOK A VILLAGE

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The availability of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, was a pivotal point in the history of the world. For the first time it was possible to cure people of infections and not just minimize their damage.

We’ve all heard the folklore. It was September 1928. Dr. Alexander Fleming returned to his lab from a summer break and found the work stations a mess. There were some colonies of the bacteria Staphylococcus in petri dishes that had become contaminated with a mold called Penicillium. What Fleming saw under the microscope was that the mold had inhibited the expected growth of the staph. Something in the mold not only slowed the growth of the staph but could possibly be used to fight an infection.

It was fourteen years later that the first patient was successfully treated with the new drug Penicillin and that is where the lessons from high school biology end. 

But there is more, so much more that is important to think about in the context of discovery.

In 1938 Dr. Howard Florey came across Flemings paper on the penicillium mold while looking at back issues of a medical journal. He had long been interested in the way that bacteria and mold interacted. Based on Fleming’s observations Foley decided to form a team to understand what Fleming had seen in what was called “antibacterial action”.

Working as part of Florey’s team was Ernst Chain. Together they were able to produce fluid extracts from the penicillium mold. In 1940 they conducted a landmark study in which 50 mice were infected with blood poisoning. The half that had no treatment died. The half that received the penicillium fluid survived.

Although encouraged by the results a big problem remained. Producing the penicillium fluid was so mold intensive that it could never scale to be widely available. In 1941 a lab assistant stopped at a store on the way to the office and found a cantaloupe that was covered in Penicillium chrysoguem – it yielded 200 times the amount of penicillin as the species that Fleming had described.

During World War II Penicillin, the refined version of the penicillin fluid, became known as a miracle drug. Throughout history the biggest killer in war was infection rather than battlefield injuries. In World War I the fatality rate from pneumonia was 18% - in World War II that fell to below 1%.

Although much of the praise was directed at Fleming it was only in 1945 when the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Fleming as well as Florey and Chain bringing together the whole team for the first time.

In our course of discovery when and who do we pass the torch to and which torches, even cold and dormant, do we choose to pick up?