Advances in medicine have enriched the quality and prolonged the lives of humankind. These medical advances have come in the form increased basic medical knowledge, diagnostic abilities, and treatment options including medicinal and surgical approaches.
Today we begin a series of articles illuminating the magnificent medicines that have changed the way we live.
- Penicillin and the modern age of antibiotics
In 1928, Scottish physician Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin. He was growing bacteria in a petri dish that had accidentally become contaminated with fungus. He noticed that in the area around the fungus the bacteria had been killed.
He postulated that the fugi were secreting a substance that had antibiotic properties and later discovered this to be true. The strain of fungus was named penicillium notatum, hence the name “penicillin” for the new medicine.
Penicillin is a member of the original family of antibiotics and it is still used today. Dr. Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1945 for its discovery. Currently there are at least 16 different classes of antibiotics in use. Penicillin went into mass production in the 1940s and has undoubtedly saved hundreds of millions of lives throughout history, ushering in the modern age of antibiotics.
- Statin drugs: the cholesterol busters
Statins are a group of medications that decrease both bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) and the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially in those with elevated cholesterol levels. They work by decreasing the production of cholesterol by the liver.
Statins (Lipitor is the most well-known statin family member) work effectively anywhere there is a blood vessel supplying an organ that can’t afford to have its blood supply compromised by cholesterol buildup, including the heart, brain, kidneys and eyes. Although not without side effects, Statins have been used successfully by hundreds of millions of people worldwide and have contributed greatly to the overall health of the world population by reducing heart attacks and strokes.
- Aspirin, a true wonder drug
Aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree. It’s been used to treat discomfort and pain for thousands of years was not released commercially until 1899. Aspirin works by blocking production of molecules called prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins are involved in producing inflammation and transmitting pain signals. As a result, aspirin is excellent at reducing inflammation and pain. Aspirin also is effective in reducing blood clots, a virtue that can also be used to prevent clots that cause heart attacks and strokes.
Emerging research suggests aspirin may also have a role in cancer prevention. Anyone considering taking aspirin on a regular preventive basis should always consult a physician to best evaluate the advantages and disadvantages.
- Asthma relief
Salbutamol (Albuterol) brought well-received relief to asthma sufferers. Asthma is a chronic lung condition affecting more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide. During an asthma attack, inflammation triggers airways to constrict, causing extreme breathing difficulties and sometimes even death.
Doctors were aware that adrenaline opened constricted airways. Unfortunately, the side effects of adrenaline were hard to tolerate, including rapid heartbeats and only short-lived relief of restricted breathing, so standard adrenaline was not a viable treatment for an asthma attack.
British researchers came up with a similar but modified version that worked well and had longer-lasting positive breathing effects with minimal side effects. Salbutamol was approved in 1982 by the FDA for use in conditions with bronchospasm such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Salbutamol is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.
- Morphine brings relief from pain
Morphine is derived from the opium poppy plant. The resin from the poppy plant is called opium. Opium contains many substances including morphine and codeine. The poppy plant has been used for its pain-killing and euphoric effects by different cultures for thousands of years.
Morphine is a plant alkaloid and was first isolated from poppy plants in 1804, becoming commercially available in 1827. Morphine works by effectively blocking pain signals in the central nervous system.
Unfortunately, morphine can be further processed into heroine, and morphine is extremely addictive both physically and psychologically. Morphine has a high potential for abuse. Although extremely effective in blocking pain, the use of morphine is generally limited to treating severe acute pain and the pain of terminal illness.
Because of morphine’s exceptional ability to control pain, it is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.
In the next few weeks I’ll talk about medicines that have prevented blindness, treated rashes and arthritis, helped to control blood pressure, and many more such advances.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.