October 21, 2014
Image of Streptomycin 3D Image of Streptomycin

Streptomycin was one of the first aminoglycoside drugs to be discovered. In 1943, A. I. Schatz, a graduate student in the Rutgers University lab of antibiotic pioneer S. A. Waksman, isolated it from the soil actinobacterium Streptomyces griseus. Its main claims to fame are its ability to control tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and plague (Yersinia pestis).

There’s an unfortunate side to the Schatz–Waksman story. Waksman convinced Schatz to sign over his royalty rights to streptomycin to what was supposed to be a nonprofit foundation But Schatz later learned that the foundation was paying royalties to Waksman. Schatz also believed that Waksman took too much credit for the discovery and downplayed Schatz’s role. Schatz sued the foundation and settled for a modest award for his foreign patent rights, 3% of the royalties, and Waksman’s recognition of his role in the discovery.

After the lawsuit, Schatz never again found work in a major research institution. Waksman (but not Schatz) was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work that led to the discovery of streptomycin.

Streptomycin made news again in 2014. A 10-year-old girl who was known to be allergic to penicillin went into anaphylactic shock after eating blueberry pie. Analysis of the blueberries showed that they were contaminated with streptomycin, which is used as a pesticide in fruit. This cautionary tale shows that severe allergic reactions can emerge from unexpected sources.

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