The Penicillin saga: a different tale

From Top Italian Scientists Journal
January 13, 2024
The Penicillin saga: a different tale
Pietro Giusti, Andrea Vendramin and Morena Zusso
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Pietro Giusti(a,b), Andrea Vendramin(a,c) and Morena Zusso(a,d)

(a)Dept. of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Studies, University of Padua, Italy.





The Sumerians, but also the ancient Egyptians, as well as Greeks and Indians, used extracts of some plants and fungi for the treatment of infections. Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (1846 - 1916), the author of Quo Vadis, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, in his novel “With iron and with fire” reports that during the 17th-century in Poland, wet bread was mixed with cobwebs (which often contained fungal spores) to heal wounds. In the same period, in England, in the book entitled Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, the apothecary and botanist John Parkinson (1567 - 1650) recommended the use of molds as a medical treatment for many infectious diseases that affect humans. These treatments often work since many organisms, including many species of mold, naturally produce antibiotic substances. However, ancient practitioners could not accurately identify or isolate the active components of these organisms.

Similar experiences and evidence have been found in many other countries, including Italy. For example, Bartolomeo Bizio (1791 - 1862), found in 1821, that the red color assumed by “polenta” (a corn meal dish) was due to a bacterium that he named Serratia marcescens and that its development was inhibited by the presence of mold.

After 1850, thanks to the progress of chemistry, the chemotherapy concept for the treatment of infectious diseases began to assert itself. Consequently, some effective chemical compounds were synthesized (for example sodium arsenylate by Antoine Béchamp in 1859 and used, at that time, against sleeping sickness and other trypanosomiasis. It was later abandoned due to its remarkable toxicity). However, thanks to Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895), in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century, the interest in substances of natural origin returned. Pasteur in fact highlighted both the inhibiting action of molds on the development of some bacteria and the antagonism between different bacteria. These observations were taken up by Arnaldo Cantani (1837 - 1893), who tried, with poor results, to apply Pasteur’s concept, developing bacteriotherapy (fight against pathogenic bacteria with other harmless bacteria) to treat tuberculosis.


Conflict of Interest

The Author declares that there is no conflict of interest.


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