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Posts tagged: Ernest Duchesne

May 06 2010

The History of Penicillin

There are many different antibiotics available – hundreds, even. Yet whenever people want to get rid of  a bacterial infection, they almost without fail buy penicillin. Penicillin is the first, and still most popular, medication with which people eradicate specific types of infection from the body.

Penicillin is one of the earliest discovered and widest used antibiotics in the world. It is derived from what is known as Penicillin mold. It works to inhibit other microorganisms from living. Antibiotics are natural substances released by bacteria and fungi into the environment that can be harnessed to work in the body. Penicillin can treat various diseases – amoxicillin, for instance, can be used to treat ear infections, bladder infections, pneumonia, gonorrhea, E. Coli, Salmonella infections, and more.

In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming observed that colonies of staphylococcus aureus bacteria could be destroyed by the Penicillium notatum mold. This proved  that there was an antibacterial agent present. Understanding this principle would aid modern medicine in ridding many afflictions that would commonly become fatal.

At the time, the importance of Fleming’s work was not known. The use of penicillin would not begin until the 1940’s when Howard Florey and other scientists demonstrated its efficacy as an in vivo bactericide. However, we can date back the original discovery originating even before Sir Fleming, when it was accidentally noticed by a French medical student by the name of  Ernest Duchesne in 1896.

Duchesne was a French physician who noted that certain molds kill bacteria. He technically made this discovery thirty-two years before Alexander Fleming. What first intrigued him about bacteria was how Arab saddle boys at the army hospital kept their saddles in dark and damp rooms to encourage mold to grow on them because it facilitated their saddle sores to heal

Figuring there was something to the mold, he made a soution with containing it and injected it into disease-ridden guinea pigs. He discovered that they recovered completely. He also performed experiments to study the interaction between E. Coli and penicillium glaucum, showing that the latter was able to completely eradicate the former. Unfortunately he was unable to do any more work because of his army service, during which he acquired tuberculosis and died at the age of 37. He would be posthumously honored in 1949, 5 years after Alexander Fleming received the Nobel prize.

Because Ernest Duchesne never actually reported the connection between fungus and antibacterial properties, it was forgotten until its rediscovery by Fleming. For this reason, Fleming received credit for the discovery.

In 1939 Dr. Howard Florey, a future Nobel Laureate, and three colleagues at Oxford University began intensive research and were able to demonstrate penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria. They were forced to move because of limited resources in Britain during the Second World War, and in 1941 arrived in the US with a small amount of penicillin. A strain from a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria market was used to produce the largest amount of penicillin when grown in a deep vat. Penicillin production was scaled up, and the drug was being released in mass quantities by July 1943.

As a result of their work, two members from the British group were awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Alexander Fleming. Andrew J Moyer, who owned the laboratory they worked in, was granted a patent for mass production.

Since its induction into common usage, many bacteria have developed resistances to penicillin. The first bug to fight penicillin was Staphylococcus aureus. Nowadays, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of the many “superbugs” that medical scientists are working to overcome by developing newer, more potent penicillin. Still today people buy penicillin to cure many types of bacterial infections.