As the incredible power of penicillin to fight bacterial infections became clear in the 1940s, so did the battle to mass produce this strategically important medicine, while the Second World War raged.
Ensuring supplies of a powerful medicine
By the end of the conflict, only the United States had succeeded in stockpiling large quantities of penicillin and held 95 percent of the entire world's stocks. Other countries were frantically looking at how they could secure their own supplies of the drug to avoid dependence on other nations. In Spain, fascist dictator Francisco Franco's isolationist policies meant that having a reliable supply was an even more urgent priority.
Josep Antoni Grífols i Roig was one of several doctors in Spain engaged in the quest. He collaborated with the Sociedad General de Farmacia, which under the name OM Laboratories registered the first penicillin preparation in Spain a year later, as injectable Penicillin OM. This product was manufactured in its Swiss plant and imported for use in Spain.
Even greater potential to cure
But the Grífols family involvement in penicillin didn't end there. Ever keen to innovate and improve, Dr. Víctor Grífols i Lucas travelled to London to obtain the latest scientific knowledge on large-scale production of the drug.
After his return, further collaboration with the Sociedad General de Farmacia yielded a powerful innovation for penicillin that would improve the drug's potency, and its value to patients. An increase of 50 to 60 percent in penicillin's power to inhibit bacterial growth was achieved by combining the drug with sulfonamides. The new innovation was marketed under the name of Pentalcillin, and first went on sale on May 28, 1948.
Lack of space and time at Laboratorios Grifols meant the company could not fully capitalize on its new product. And the restriction of national production of penicillin by the Franco regime to only two organizations put a final end to Pentalcillin a few years later.
An increase of 50 to 60 percent in penicillin's power to inhibit
bacterial growth was achieved by combining the drug with sulfonamides
Landmarks in the development of penicillin
The history of science is not made exclusively by its great names, as the story of penicillin illustrates.
There is evidence that ancient cultures including Babylonian, Greek and Indian civilizations had already identified the natural properties of some molds to curb bacteriological infections.
At the end of the 19th century, many scientists tried to study the antibiotic power of a specific type of fungus: penicillium. Lister, Roberts, Tyndall, Pasteur and Duchesne showed that their different variants reduced bacteriological growth in some way.
By the 1920s, Gratia, Dath and Picado had indicated their effectiveness in inhibiting growth in staphylococcus cultures, but it was not until 1928 that Alexander Fleming named the molecule produced by the fungus penicillin, and demonstrated its antibiotic power in vitro.
But for more than 10 years his findings would have little impact, since Fleming could not purify or isolate the molecule. Neither could he make it stable enough to mass-produce antibiotics, and thus meet the needs generated by World War II.
It was Ernst Chain, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley who, through a collaboration between Great Britain and the USA during the 1940s, managed to demonstrate penicillin's effects in vivo, as well as purify enough to be used during the war, inaugurating the era of antibiotics.
In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their inspired and world-changing efforts.