Discovery of penicillin: Sept. 28, 1928
Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming makes a curious discovery when he returns to his lab after a vacation. In one of the dirty Petri dishes he had stacked in a tray filled with Lysol—one that had not be submerged in the disinfectant—he notices that mold has grown and that it seems to have killed the staph bacteria Fleming had cultivated in the dish.
That intrigues Fleming because for years, he’d been researching the antibacterial properties of enzymes, such as those found in human tears. He wonders if this mold could lead him to developing the wonder drug he’d been looking for.
Fleming soon determines that the mold likely floated up in spores from the lab in the floor below him, where one of his colleagues has been collecting mold samples as part of asthma research. They identify it as a mold known as Penicillium so Fleming decides to call its bacteria-killing “juice” penicillin.
Fleming, however, was not a chemist and he wasn’t able to isolate whatever was killing the bacteria. He did publish a paper about his discovery in 1929, but it didn’t generate much interest.
Then, a worldwide depression dried up funding for scientific research. It wasn’t until 1938 that an Oxford University scientist named Ernst Chain happened upon Fleming’s paper on penicillin. He began working with his boss, researcher Howard Florey, and they found that it cured bacterial infections in mice. Then they tried it on humans, with similar success.
Once World War II began, Florey traveled to the U.S. to talk to chemical companies about mass-producing penicillin. They began ramping up in 1943, with the goal of having an adequate supply available by the time the Allies invaded Europe. Production of penicillin in the U.S. jumped from 21 billion units in 1943 to 1,663 billion units in 1944 to 6.8 trillion in 1945. And the cost dropped dramatically, from $20 per 100,000 units in 1943 to less than 10 cents per 100,000 units in 1949.
For their work on creating the wonder drug of the 20th century, Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945. A few years later, Florey gave much credit to U.S. chemical firms. “Too high a tribute cannot be paid to the enterprise and energy with which the American manufacturing firms tackled the large-scale production of the drug,” he wrote. “Had it not been for their efforts, there would certainly not have been sufficient penicillin by D-Day in 1944 to treat all severe casualties, both British and American.”
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Study: E-cigarettes don't help cancer patients stop smoking
E-cigarettes may not be as helpful as originally thought. A new study from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reveals cancer patients who use e-cigarettes are less likely or only equally likely to quit smoking compared to people who do not use e-cigarettes.
Published in the journal CANCER, researchers found that two-thirds of smokers continue to smoke even after a cancer diagnosis. E-cigarettes are still relatively new, so it’s unclear if they are harmful or how much they help people looking to quit.
From 2012 to 2013, researchers analyzed 1,074 smokers who were also cancer patients in a tobacco treatment program at a cancer center. Patients who used e-cigarettes during this time jumped from 10.6 percent to 38.5 percent. At the beginning of the study, e-cigarette users were more nicotine dependent, attempted quitting more often, and more likely to develop head, neck or lung cancers than people who do not use e-cigarettes.
When following up with the patients, the study findings show e-cigarette users were just as likely as cigarette users to still be smoking. The rates of quitting smoking for seven days were pretty comparable: 44.4 percent in e-cigarette users and 43.1 percent in cigarette users. They also found e-cigarette users were twice as likely as non-users to smoke traditional cigarettes.
Overall, using e-cigarettes was not connected with increased smoking cessation or as a means for cancer patients to quit smoking. It is noted, however, this study does not mean e-cigarettes won’t help patients quit in the future. More research is needed to determine the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes. One researcher noted oncologists should still encourage patients to quit smoking through government-approved cessation tools, counseling, and also provide information on e-cigarettes.
Celebrity health news has big effect on public's behavior
When a big-name celebrity, such as Angelina Jolie, shares personal information about a health issue, it can have a significant impact on the general public’s awareness and behavior, concludes a study by a team of British researchers. They specifically focused on Jolie’s 2013 announcement that because of her BRCA1 gene mutation, she decided to have a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer.
The researchers, led by Gareth Evans of Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention and St. Mary’s Hospital in the U.K., analyzed data from 12 breast cancer family history clinics and nine regional genetic testing centers in the UK from 2012-13. They found that in June and July 2013 - immediately after Jolie’s announcement - referrals for genetic testing increased 2.5-fold compared with the same period in 2012–from 1,981 to 4,847. A twofold increase continued until October 2013, after which time genetic testing referrals began to drop.
The team notes that a similar pattern was seen in Australia after news broke about singer Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. This led to a 40 percent increase in breast cancer screening. And in 1987, Nancy Reagan’s decision not to undergo breast-conserving surgery led to a 25 percent increase in mastectomies in the US.
The team concluded that health news about a celebrity could have an impact on the general public’s behavior for at least six months.
Test may help detect dementia
Researchers from York University in the U.K. say they’ve developed a test based on thinking and movement that can detect Alzheimer’s disease even before symptoms of dementia appear. The findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Study participants were split into three groups: people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or with a family history of Alzheimer’s, and two control groups of both young and older adults without any family history of Alzheimer’s.
Individuals took four increasingly difficult visual-spatial and cognitive-motor tasks on dual laptop computers. Tasks included moving the computer mouse the opposite way of a certain target on the screen. These types of assignments showed a pronounced difference between the test and control groups.
Although researchers found many motor skills are well intact even in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, 81.8 percent of participants with MCI or a family history of Alzheimer’s struggled with the most cognitively demanding visual motor task. This may be because communication between the back of the brain and the front of the brain is essential for turning visual and sensory information into physical action. When this brain communication is disrupted due to neurological changes, it may be the first signs of Alzheimer’s, even without any clear outward symptoms. The researchers said it could be possible to determine if a person was at a high or low risk for Alzheimer’s based on the participant’s reaction and movement time.
One researcher noted this study does not determine who will or will not develop Alzheimer’s, but it may help in the advancements with early diagnosis and understanding how people with a family history of the illness may be affected.