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Penicillin, the Pioneer of Medicine

Penicillin is a popular antibiotic used to treat a wide range of bacterial infections. Antibiotics are a group of medicines that are commonly used to treat certain bacterial infections. It is a chemical produced by certain fungi. There are different types of penicillin, such as phenoxymethylpenicillin, flucloxacillin, and amoxicillin. The function of penicillin in the fungus is to prevent the growth of any surrounding bacteria. Its history dates back to the late 1920s when it revolutionized medicine and made bacterial infections much easier to treat and recover from. Before the discovery of penicillin, even a tiny cut had the chance to become infected and be potentially fatal.

In 1928 Dr. Alexander Fleming was experimenting with a group of bacteria called Staphylococcus. He then went on vacation and, when he returned, noticed mold growing on his petri dish. The mold seemed to be preventing the surrounding bacteria from growing, and Fleming identified that they produced a chemical that could kill bacteria. He named the chemical penicillin, and the first antibiotic was discovered.

Fleming presented his discovery to the Medical Research Club, where his peers seemed to show little interest in his findings. Fleming also did not have the resources or the necessary background to carry out the project, so he enlisted the help of a group of expert chemists to help purify penicillin. Unfortunately, the project failed as no one could refine it, and penicillin was labeled as a "laboratory curiosity" and was abandoned. About ten years later, in 1937, Dr. Howard Florey, interested in how mold and bacteria kill one another, found Dr. Fleming's work. Dr. Florey then assembled a team dedicated to harnessing penicillin. One of Florey's colleagues was Dr. Ernst Chain, a brilliant biochemist who often argued with Florey over who deserved credit for the discovery of penicillin. Despite these challenges, the team eventually produced enough penicillin and three years later began animal trials. The method of producing penicillin was incredibly inefficient and would only yield a small amount. Gallons of the mold broth were needed to make just a fingernail of penicillin.

They began animal testing in 1940 and infected eight mice with the streptococci bacteria. They then gave four mice penicillin via injection and observed the results. The four mice given penicillin survived, and those that didn't died. Their findings garnered immediate success, but the team now needed penicillin and had a slow method to harvest it. They needed to make penicillin as quickly as possible, so they started growing it in everything they could find, such as bathtubs, bedpans, milk churns, etc. The first human trial was in 1941 on a policeman in his 40s named Albert Alexander, who cut his face when working in his rose garden. The infection had spread to his eyes and inside his lungs. Albert began to recover as he was given the injections, but he died shortly after the team ran out of penicillin. This incident highlighted a vital issue for the team, which was the need to produce penicillin more effectively. In June of 1941, Florey arrived in Peoria, Illinois, and worked with the Department of Agriculture for this very task. They used fermentation tanks and corn–steep liquor to increase the yield of penicillin exponentially. Corn-steep liquor had all the necessary requirements for fungal growth, such as sugar, nitrogen, and amino acids. Despite all this, they were not making enough penicillin to treat humans effectively. This started a global search for mold that produced more penicillin. Samples of dirt were sent in from all over the world, but the solution was found by a laboratory assistant at the Peoria Lab named Mary Hunt when she discovered mold growing on a cantaloupe at her local market. The mold called Penicillium chrysogenum was much more efficient in producing penicillin and could be used effectively to treat humans. In the Second World War, the demand for penicillin skyrocketed as bacterial infections were common among soldiers. The death rate from bacterial infections dropped from 18 percent in World War 1 to less than 1% in World War 2. Penicillin was seen as a wonder, and its discovery saved countless lives. It has revolutionized medicine and is still used daily today.

Although penicillin is incredibly useful, it does not come without side effects. Many people have penicillin allergies, with symptoms causing rashes, hives, and even anaphylaxis. On top of allergies, the effectiveness of penicillin is decreasing over time due to bacteria becoming resistant to them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 2 million people in the United States develop antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and 23,000 die. When an antibiotic is taken, most of the bacteria are killed by it, but some may survive. These bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, then multiply further, creating a colony of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic. This is why antibiotics should be taken in moderation to decrease the risk of resistant bacteria. Antibiotic abuse can lead to resistant bacteria and severe bacterial infections.


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