The development of vaccines, antibiotics and prescription drugs and the emergence of the pharma industry
has undoubtedly saved millions of lives, protecting against, and even eliminating, viruses and diseases that were once among the leading causes of death.
Growth in the pharmaceutical industry would not have been possible without some landmark achievements, starting in the second half of the 19th century.
In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur began to conduct experiments on the links between microorganisms and disease. Scientists such as Robert Koch pursued similar work in the second half of the 19th century, leading to the development of the germ theory of disease, which stated that some infections are caused by microscopic organisms invading the host.
Prior to this insight, physical ailments were explained through ideas such as miasma theory, which held that diseases were caused by the inhalation of 'bad air'.
Production of Vaccines and Antibiotics
The acceptance of the germ theory of disease led to the creation of vaccines to combat certain conditions. Commercial production began during World War I, mitigating the impact of a number of infectious diseases.
Further progress came in the late 1920s, when German bacteriologist Gerhard Domagk discovered what was to become the first commercially available antibiotic, marketed as Prontosil.
Discovery of Penicillin
A landmark moment for the pharmaceutical industry came in 1928, when Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, one of the most widely used antibiotics. Fleming noted that substances found in the Penicillium mold had the potential to destroy certain types of bacteria.
The importance of the discovery was not immediately recognised and widespread use of penicillin antibiotics for medical purposes did not begin until the 1940s. These drugs were the first to be effective against diseases such as syphilis.
Isolation of Insulin
Before the isolation of insulin in 1921, and the synthetic manufacture of the hormone in later decades, diabetes meant almost certain death. Canadian physician Frederick Banting succeeded in extracting and purifying insulin, receiving a Nobel Prize for his work in 1923.
Today, insulin is produced on a mass scale and prescribed to people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Emergence of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers
As well as enabling the human race to fight an array of diseases, key discoveries such as insulin and penicillin paved the way for the emergence of the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry.
The mass manufacture and distribution of drugs and antibiotics began soon after their health benefits became clear. The growth of the pharmaceuticals industry was driven by countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US.
The pharmaceuticals industry really came into its own with the mass production and marketing of drugs in the 1950s and 60s.
One of the key moments in this period was the manufacture of the first oral contraceptive. This method of birth control came to be known simply as the Pill and is now used by about 100 million women worldwide.
Understanding of DNA
Advancements in science continued to support the evolution of pharmaceuticals in the 1950s, as humans began to develop a better understanding of their own biology.
This decade brought significant progress in DNA research, with landmark discoveries and insights enabling the development of new and more effective drugs.
Focus on Safety
The growth of the pharmaceutical industry played a major part in improving healthcare and extending life expectancies in the 20th century, but just as important was the development of rigorous safety standards and regulations.
In the 1960s, the World Medical Association issued the Declaration of Helsinki to set new standards for clinical research, while manufacturers became legally required to prove the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals in trials before marketing the drugs.
Development of Antidepressants
One of the most common modern uses of pharmaceutical drugs is to combat conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Launched in the early 1960s, diazepam has been one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the world over the past five decades owing to its potential to reduce tension and anxiety.
The Fight against Heart Disease and Cancer
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in middle and high-income countries, according to the World Health Organization, but the development of new medicines has helped reduce heart disease-related deaths by more than half since 1950.
Pharmaceutical drugs have also played a major part in the battle against cancer, starting with the development of the first anti-cancer agents in the 1940s. Further progress in the second half of the 20th century led to substantial reductions in cancer death rates.
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