24 jun 2020
Modern pharmaceutical compounds run the spectrum from life-enriching to literally lifesaving.
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Stuff of Progress, Pt. 10: Synthetic Pharmaceuticals
By Tony Morley
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In 1853, a French chemist named Charles Frédéric Gerhardt did something remarkable. He mastered an understanding of salicin, a naturally occurring chemical compound derived from the bark of willow trees - and went on to chemically synthesize salicylic acid, a synthetic form of natural salicin and civilization’s first synthetic pain reliever. In doing so, he helped to kick off the Pharmaceutical Revolution.

 

Humans had been unknowingly using the salicin found in many plants, but most especially willow bark, to treat pain since at least 1500 BCE, starting in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But knowing that a plant contains a useful treatment and understanding how to artificially synthesize that treatment from scratch are two very different things.

 

Mastering that technological jump in pharmaceutical chemistry took over three thousand years. Aside from pain relief, salicin had another great advantage. It could reduce inflammation, and break a fever, particularly in children.

 

Between 1897 and 1899, a German chemist named Felix Hoffmann, refined the process of synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid, a refined and improved form of the synthetic salicylic acid, while undertaking work for the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company based in Germany. The name that Bayer gave to the first mass produced pharmaceutical is as much a household name today as it was at the turn of the century. That name was Aspirin.

 

By 1950, Aspirin had become the most consumed painkiller globally. Today, we consume more than a hundred billion Aspirin tablets annually. Unlocking the chemistry and technology required to produce acetylsalicylic acid was the key to developing the first in a series of tens of thousands of natural and synthetic pharmaceutical compounds produced between the height of the Industrial Revolution and today.

 

It is all too easy to forget how greatly modern pharmaceuticals have transformed our collective lives. From insulin to modern contraceptive tablets and from acetaminophen to paracetamol, these compounds run the spectrum from life enriching to literally life-saving.

 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alone regulates an estimated 20,000 prescription drugs and chemical compounds used to treat thousands of conditions. The pharmaceutical compounds we have at our disposal have helped to dramatically reduce the burden of disease in both the developed and developing world.

 

Scientific progress,  stimulated by expanding and largely free globalized trade network, helped to advance both the development and utilization of key pharmaceutical breakthroughs. It is no exaggeration to say that some of the more prominent pharmaceutical drugs significantly impacted life expectancy averages, as well as our general wellbeing.

 

Starting at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, civilization began to turn out a series of groundbreaking pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics, vaccines and much more. Some of those key drugs included Ether and Morphine, powerful pain blockers, invented in 1842 and 1827 respectively. Insulin, an effective diabetes treatment, was developed in 1922; penicillin, a powerful antibiotic, in 1942; drug treatments for tuberculosis in 1951; oral contraceptives in the 1960s; salbutamol to treat asthma in 1966; and a series of effective chemotherapy drugs and HIV inhibitors in the 1990s. 

 

Humanity has accomplished all that and more. Powerful modern anesthetics, antibiotics, antimalarials or vaccines which have also saved hundreds of millions of lives - especially those of children.

 

Today the global pharmaceutical market is worth more than 1.1 trillion U.S. dollars, having grown by more than 5 percent over the previous year alone.The same market forces, which have helped to provide inexpensive and abundant energy, and fast and reliable communications and travel, have also helped to drive forward an industry that has improved the health and wellbeing of billions.

 

Today, most people living in developed countries have relatively inexpensive access to a vast spectrum of affordable over the counter and prescription medications, the likes of which couldn’t have been dreamed of by even the most optimistic medical chemists of the late 1800s.

 

For less than the price of a coffee, you can rid yourself of a headache, take a dose of antibiotic to treat an infection, break a child's fever, provide a dose of oral rehydration therapy or allergy antihistamine. The good news is that innovation and progress within the pharmaceutical industry continues to drive human progress. 

 

That is all the more important as the world’s scientists race to develop inexpensive, effective and swiftly deployable treatments and vaccines to combat the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus pandemic.   

Tony Morley is a freelance science writer, and human progress and economic growth exponent. He is based in Australia.
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