Early medicines were the product of a fortuitous discovery of a plant or microbial extract and hit-or-miss testing of similar compounds to find the most effective version. Today, using the tools of modern chemistry, scientists map the structures of modern medicines, mimic their functions and tailor drugs to individual needs—making medical miracles everyday events.
Humankind has long suffered from a lack of understanding of basic nutrition. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986) discovered the chemical ascorbic acid—also known as vitamin C—that enables the body to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats, and protein. His discovery was among the foundations of modern nutrition. In later years he and his collaborators achieved world renown in the field of the biochemical mechanism of muscular contraction. From 1948 until his death, he worked in the United States where he was also involved in cancer research. Learn more.
Alice Hamilton helped make the American workplace less dangerous. In her quest to uncover industrial toxins, Hamilton roamed the more dangerous parts of urban America, descended into mines, and finagled her way into factories reluctant to admit her. Hamilton was a pioneer who became a leading expert in chemical health and safety. Learn more.
Beginning in the 1920s, Carl and Gerty Cori conducted a series of pioneering studies that led to our current understanding of the metabolism of sugars. In brilliant collaboration, the Coris studied how the body metabolizes glucose and advanced the understanding of how the body produces and stores energy. Their findings were particularly useful in the development of treatments for diabetes. Building on their work, others developed improved techniques to control diabetes. In 1947 the Coris shared a Nobel Prize for their discoveries. Learn more.
Steroid chemists often refer to the 1930s as the Decade of the Sex Hormones, when the molecular structures of certain sex hormones were determined and first introduced to medical practice as drugs. Russell Marker achieved the first practical synthesis of the pregnancy hormone progesterone by what now is known as the "Marker Degradation," using a species of Mexican yam as its starting material. Important research on sex hormones continued in Mexico, leading to the synthesis of the first useful oral contraceptive in 1951. Learn more.
In 1956, Al and Helen Free, chemists at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Indiana, developed Clinistix, a dip-and-read test for the presence of glucose in urine, an indication of diabetes. Later, the Frees developed strips with multiple tests to measure proteins, pH, bilirubin, and other substances in blood and urine. Today, self-management of a host of diseases—including diabetes as well as other metabolic diseases and kidney and liver conditions—is an easier process because of the development. Learn more.
Penicillin, the first effective antibiotic, was famously discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 almost by accident. The introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, which began the era of antibiotics, has been recognized as one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine. The discovery of penicillin and the initial recognition of its therapeutic potential occurred in the United Kingdom, but, due to World War II, the United States played the major role in developing large-scale production of the drug, thus making a life-saving substance in limited supply into a widely available medicine. Learn more.
Thousands of lives have been saved by new chemotherapy drugs derived from natural products. Two of these natural products, camptothecin and Taxol, were first isolated by Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. These natural products kill cancer cells via unique mechanisms of action and in ways scientists had not previously imagined. The work of this research team led to the eventual development and marketing of drugs that have been approved for treatment of ovarian, breast, lung, and colon cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Learn more.
The story is so improbable it defies belief: a soil sample from Japan stops suffering in Africa. It starts when a scientist discovers a lowly bacterium near a golf course outside Tokyo. A team of scientists in the United States finds that the bacterium produces compounds that impede the activity of nematode worms. It is developed into a drug that wards off parasites in countless pets and farm animals, averting billions of dollars in losses worldwide. Extraordinarily, the drug also prevents or treats human parasitic diseases that would otherwise cause blindness and other severe symptoms in hundreds of millions of people in many of the poorest countries on Earth. Learn more.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) has become a staple of medical diagnostics: MRI is a useful non-invasive and non-destructive diagnostic tool for imaging soft tissues such as the brain, heart and muscles, and for discovering tumors in many organs. MRI is an application of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), an analytical tool of chemists found in laboratories worldwide. Together, NMR and MRI revolutionized the practice of chemistry and medicine by providing fast, non-destructive, and non-invasive means for the observation of matter from the atomic to the macroscopic scale. Learn more.
John D. Rockefeller founded the university that bears his name in 1901 after his grandson died from scarlet fever. Located in New York City and originally called the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, it was the first institution in the United States devoted solely to biomedical research and is renowned for research on proteins and nucleic acids—the chemistry of life itself. Scientists at Rockefeller discovered that genes are made of DNA, found the Rh factor in blood, demonstrated the connection between cholesterol and heart disease, developed vaccines against meningitis, and introduced methadone to manage heroin addiction. Learn more.
Millions of people owe their sight to Percy Julian, the African American chemist who transcended racial bias to revolutionize the treatment of glaucoma. Born in Alabama in 1899, Julian was barred from the local public school's college preparatory program because of his race. Nonetheless, he excelled academically, and in 1935 he synthesized physostigmine, a natural substance used to reduce pressure in the eyeball caused by glaucoma, which can lead to blindness. The feat cut the cost of significantly, making treatment widely available and earning Julian worldwide acclaim. Learn more.
Conceived in wartime, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) managed the transition to peacetime, in part, through the production and distribution of radioisotopes, perhaps the most important scientific byproduct of the Manhattan Project. These radioactive forms of chemical elements have a myriad of medical, industrial, and agricultural uses. The availability of radioisotopes led to advances in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, and many other applied and theoretical sciences. Learn more.
Waksman and his students established the first screening protocols to detect antimicrobial agents produced by microorganisms. This deliberate search for chemotherapeutic agents contrasts with the discovery of penicillin, which came through a chance observation by Alexander Fleming, who noted that a mold contaminant on a Petri dish culture had inhibited the growth of a bacterial pathogen. During the 1940s, Waksman and his students isolated more than fifteen antibiotics, the most famous of which was streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis. Learn more.
Cimetidine, better known as Tagamet®, opened a new chapter in drug development. Introduced in 1976 as a treatment for stomach ulcers—then a potentially life-threatening condition—cimetidine was the product of a logical and methodical search. Researchers at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals (now GlaxoSmithKline) identified the molecule that triggers the release of gastric acid when it binds to a receptor in the lining of the stomach. After a decade-long search, the researchers achieved their goal with cimetidine. It represented a new class of drugs and a new approach to developing them. Learn more.
The story of how vitamins went from a medical curiosity to a daily routine for millions of Americans encompasses a worldwide quest to understand malnutrition and to develop protocols to prevent it. Before the discovery and widespread availability of vitamins, diseases caused by malnutrition took an incalculable human toll. Research and development of these essential nutrients represented a transition for pharmaceutical companies like Merck. Their work vastly improved the health of humans and animals by overcoming the scourge of malnutrition. Learn more.