Drugs from Dirt Are Saving Lives

One of these startling finds stopped a typhus epidemic in three days. Together they promise even greater results than penicillin

FRANK SLAUGHTER February 1 1950

Drugs from Dirt Are Saving Lives

One of these startling finds stopped a typhus epidemic in three days. Together they promise even greater results than penicillin

FRANK SLAUGHTER February 1 1950

Drugs from Dirt Are Saving Lives


One of these startling finds stopped a typhus epidemic in three days. Together they promise even greater results than penicillin


A VAGUE headache and pain in the right chest caught a young housewife while shopping recently. She was examined by a doctor who diagnosed “virus pneumonia,” the disease which attacked thousands in wartime training camps and which sweeps through the country each winter.

This form of pneumonia, while not fatal, normally caused a prolonged and weakening illness and left its victims under par for weeks after the attack. But the housewife was completely cured within five days, thanks to a new drug made from dirt— Aureomycin.

Within 36 hours after the amazingly efficient drug was administered her fever had left her, and in less than a week she was as sound as a dollar.

The World’s Most Famous Garden

AUREOMYCIN is one of a family of new drugs zV which promise to outdo and perhaps replace even those stalwart lifesavers, penicillin and streptomycin. They do everything the older drugs do and more, for besides attacking germs they are the first drugs to attack viruses—the ultratiny invaders which cause everything from the common cold to polio.

In addition they are the sworn enemies of those tiny parasites which scientists call rickettsiae, the microbes which cause typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and they can be administered by mouth rather than by injection.

The newest member of the family, neomycin, gives at least test-tube promise against tuberculosis. It is the latest discovery of Dr. Selman Waksman, the father of streptomycin. Together with Chloromycetin, a drug which once cured an epidemic of 21 cases of typhus fever in three days, and Aureomycin, it forms the most formidable triad of weapons ever forged in man’s fight against disease.

Last year, in a poll conducted by the National Council for Medical Research, heads of U. S. medical colleges and institutions predicted that the discovery of Aureomycin “will shape up as one of the most significant medical advances of 1948.” These lifesavers were all discovered in ordinary dirt. Chloromycetin was isolated from a mold which came from Caracas in Venezuela. Aureomycin was produced from one of 600 batches of soil from all over the U. S. Neomycin’s mold parent came from the most famous dirt in the world — the garden outside Waksinan’s laboratory in New Jersey.

These new drugs have made some dramatic cures since they left the laboratories.

Dite in 1947 Dr. Eugene 11. Payne, of Detroit, was visiting Bolivia. By good fortune he had a tiny quantity of Chloromycetin with him in crystalline form. This amount hud cost about $200,000 produce.

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Drugs From Dirt Are Saving Lives

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On his arrival Payne was greeted by a typhus epidemic. Bolivian authorities asked him to visit Camacho Province where people were dying daily. Some were so weak that they could not take the new drug by mouth; it had to be administered by hypodermic.

Payne treated 21 cases of severe typhus and two of typhoid fever. In some cases the patients were nearly dead. Yet in three days all were cured. Usually typhus drags on for weeks, killing many of its victims.

This so impressed Dr. Joseph Smadel, the director of virus research for the U. S. Army Medical School, that he led an expedition to Malaya, a hotbed of scrub typhus. With him Smadel had all the Chloromycetin in the world at that time, roughly one pound. With a colleague, Dr. Theodore E. Woodward, of Baltimore, he treated 32 Malayan, East Indian and Chinese patients. Ail were far advanced in the disease.

The doctors were startled and delighted when a cure resulted in every case, even when serious complications were present. A few patients took longer to be cured and it turned out they were suffering from typhoid, not typhus.

Heartened by this evidence of new ability for the drug the two doctors next treated 10 cases of severe typhoid. Most of the patients were in the 10th day of the fever, with 10 to 20 days to go if they recovered at all. But in an average of three and a half days after Chloromycetin was begun the fever was gone. Two severe complications— one a perforation of the intestine which is often fatal in typhoid — nuide equally startling recoveries.

Aureomycin is equally amazing in its cures. Early in the history of the drug a young hoy was brought into i New Jersey hospital from a summer camp. He had a fever of 104 degrees. His headache, aching joints and red rash were typical of a severe case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever; he soon lapsed into a coma.

This disease ordinarily kills 10%, of its victims and leaves one fourth with complications after a severe illness of several week*. The child was given Aureomycin, came out of his coma, and his (empirâture soon dropped to

normal. In another day he was apparently well.

In 28 other cases of the same disease, all over the U. S., the average length of the fever after the drug was taken was 48 hours, with recovery in five to seven

Another serious rickettsiae fever called Q-fever (isolated first in Queensland, Australia) has been steadily increasing. But it, too, is beaten by Aureomycin in a few days.

Aureomycin also attacks another kind of typhus, the “murine” form carried by rat fleas. This fever is widely present in the southern U. S., but may develop anywhere where rats and fleas are present. It is a long disabling disease with frequent complications. Aureomycin brings it to heel in 48 hours with recovery in less than a week.

Now They Starve the Germs

These new drugs—substances produced by living things which attack living things—are called “antibiotics.” They do not work like germicides and antiseptics which directly attack and destroy microbes; instead they interfere with the nutrition of their victims. They make it impossible for the microbe to nourish itself or reproduce, thus the germ is weakened, and the body destroys it.

Many antibiotics have been discovered which fight germs effectively, hut most of them are dangerous. The three newest members of the antibiotic family are, however, almost devoid of danger to the human body.

The race to find “paydirt” in the search for antibiotic drugs began when Dr. R. J. Dubos, of the Rockefeller Foundation, isolated a powerful antibiotic called tyrothricin from soil germs in 1939. Next came Waksman’s discovery of streptomycin. With the impetus of this work, and Waksman's long experience in soil culture, scientists all over the world began to explore this fertile new source of disease-fighting agents.

In the Detroit laboratories of Parke, Davis and Company a small army of research scientists began investigating the possibilities of soil molds as antibiotic producers. Dr. Paul Burkholder, of Yale, first cultured soil samples from abroad. Those showing promise were sent on to Detroit for further investigation.

After months of study a particularly promising specimen grown from soil near Caracas, Venezuela, was prosai-

cally labeled A-65 and passed along to Detroit.

The first inkling that A-65 was something phenomenal was when Dr. I. William McLean showed that it was a potent weapon against rickettsiae. No other drug in history had attacked these vicious killers before.

Parke Davis scientists next separated the pure drug in crystals from the crude culture mold. This entirely new compound — Chloromycetin — ordinarily contained two chemicals poisonous to man. Yet the drug itself is completely harmless. It proved itself when Payne saved the 21 typhus victims in Bolivia.

Recently a group of chemists at Parke Davis, particularly Dr. Mildred Rebstock, has produced Chloromycetin chemically through synthesis. It. is first of the antibiotic drugs to he synthesized in amounts of any size. ’The laboratory product has already proved just as effective u disease fighter as that produced from the original mold.

The synthesis of Chloromycetin promises to he one of the most significant steps in treating human illness in modern times, if not in history. Already byproducts, are being found which may outstrip the already phenomenal accomplishments of the parent drug. At present roughly five times us much Chloromycetin is being produced by chemical synthesis as by tile earlier culture methods.

Gold Mold Was a Gold Mine

Aureomycin was produced almost simultaneously with Chloromycetin. In 1941 Lederle Laboratories, of New York City and Pearl River, N.Y., invited Dr. Benjamin M. Duggar to come to their laboratories as their consultant in mold and fungus studies. Duggar, a recognized expert in the fii Id, was not long in producing results.

More than 600 soil samples had been gathered from all over the Unit« d States and the researchers started growing molds. More than 30,000 strains of mold were tested and from these 3,400 strains were selected as promising.

One, labeled mold No. 377, which looked like a winner, grew with a beautiful golden color. The substance it produced, Aureomycin, has proved a gold mine of germ-fighting jiower.

In many cases Aureomycin and this is generally true of Chloromycetin too

the work of penicillin and streptomycin combined. For example, take

“gratn positive” and “gram negative” bacteria. A dye called “gram’s stain” is used to color germs so they can be seen under a microscope. When iodine is added one type of germ called “gram negative” loses its stain. This kind is attacked by streptomycin. The other kind, “gram positive,” holds the stain when treated by iodine.

Penicillin attacks many of these, but the new drugs from dirt hit both groups hard. And the new products also can be used to attack certain organisms which infect the eye.

In pneumonia Aureomycin has an advantage over penicillin. One difficulty in treating pneumonia lies in determining the type early. For example, one type of pneumonia is cured by penicillin but “virus” is not affected by it. Now the doctor no longer need worry. Aureomycin cures both kinds rapidly and effectively.

Although Aureomycin and Chloromycetin are both simple to administer, being taken in capsule form, they should not be taken except upon the orders of a physician. The diseases they control are all serious and the cost of the drug is high; a diagnosis should be made before treatment is begun.

At $1.33 a Dose They’re Cheap

Aureomycin and Chloromycetin cost roughly $1.33 for an average dose at Canadian drugstore prices. This is roughly 20% higher than in the U. S. The price of both drugs has been cut several times since they went on the market and it is expected that they will be cut again as better production methods are developed.

But, expensive as they are, Chloromycetin and Aureomycin have brought a big break in the rising costs of medical care. Ordinarily they are given every four hours, thus the cost of a day’s treatment is roughly $8 in Canada. But because these new disease fighters can be used at home in many cases, even in serious illnesses such as typhus or “virus pneumonia,” they save the cost of hospitalization and the frequent injections necessary with both penicillin and streptomycin.

The promise of these new antibiotic drugs is breath-taking to contemplate, for with the byproducts which will

almost certainly be developed and their effect upon both “gram-negative” and “gram-positive” bacteria, plus the previously unheard-of feat of killing rickettsiae and viruses as well, the whole army of man’s microscopic enemies may soon be in full retreat.

A New Weapon Against T.B.

Streptomycin was the first drug in history to give any solid promise in treating tuberculosis. Although still disputed by some, its benefit in many forms of T.B. is beyond question; and roughly three fourths of the world’s output of streptomycin is now being used for attacking the disease. Streptomycin must, however, be given by injection over long periods, and the drug sometimes causes complications. Cases of nerve damage after using streptomycin have been reported.

Recently Selman Waksman (who discovered streptomycin) and a Canadian graduate student at Rutgers, Hubert A. Lechevalier, have produced a new mold product which they call neomycin.

Neomycin, young as it is, shows great promise. It is effective against germs in very small amounts. For example, when diluted as much as 25,000 times its volume it still stopped the growth of staphylococcus aureus, a common germ causing boils, but one often very hard to kill.

Neomycin strikes a body blow against many bacteria, both “gram negative” and “gram positive,” but it is in fighting tuberculosis that it seems to hold its greatest promise.

It stops the growth of the experimentally grown tuberculosis germ far more effectively and rapidly than streptomycin and also has the considerable advantage of being nontoxic, causing none of the ill effects of the earlier drug. It seems likely, too, that neomycin will be very effective when given by mouth.

To date, the trial period for this drug in animal and human T.B. has not been completed, so it is far too early to define its ultimate effect. But the promise is there.

Never before in the history of medicine have so many important discoveries been made within a decade and so many lives saved with dirt. ★