Have you ever gotten a particularly nasty infection? The kind of infection which won’t go away until your doctor prescribes antibiotics? I have. It’s magical what those little pills can do. Yet in 1918 when WWI was ending, there weren’t any magical cures for disease. The Spanish Flu took the lives of an estimated 50 to 100 million people. It often killed within 48 hours of its victim’s first cough, filling their lungs with fluid.
The epidemic triggered years of unfruitful research. Scientists in small labs around Europe worked with samples of the Spanish Flu virus. However, it was in Scotland where Alexander Fleming had a break through. In 1928, Fleming took a vacation from his Petri dishes. Leaving the windows to his laboratory open, he came back to find a green mold growing on his samples. We know this mold as penicillin.
Turning mold into medicine wasn’t easy. It was a temperamental process with an extremely low yield. The isolation and extraction process was very difficult. It took almost a decade and a half for penicillin to be mass-produced. For the next 50 years, drug discoveries happened in nearly the same trial-and-error method as Fleming’s.
Real changes in drug discovery came when James Watson and Francis Crick identified the DNA-helix – the molecule that carries genetic information from one generation to another. When I first heard about the helix, I remember thinking, “So what?” How wrong I was! The helix led to biotechnology and revolutionized the drug industry. With biotechnology, drugs which were once stumbled upon are now engineered.
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