Field of Science

The Earlier discovery of Antibiotic Resistance

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how quickly penicillin resistance was discovered not long before it was distributed to the public, and how even Alexander Fleming noted his worries over penicillin resistance in the closing of his Nobel prize acceptance speech.
But even in the process of researching this article, I realised that I was merely scratching the surface. You see penicillin was not the first antibiotic discovered. If I want to talk about the first discovery of antibiotic resistance, then I will  need to tell this story as well.
In 1932 in Germany, a scientist patented an incredibly important discovery, one that would eventually win him the Nobel prize.
Domagk had been working at Bayer pharmaceuticals at the time of his discovery. In the early 1920's, Bayer had begun to experimenting with different methods for treating bacterial diseases. The experiences of World War 1 had left many researchers with the desire to find ways of preventing deaths from wound infections. Domagk had served in World War 1, and had worked in a cholera hospital near the eastern front. He noted the seeming futility of treating patients with infections. 
He came to the attention of Bayer pharmaceuticals after Professor Heinrich Hoerlein* had come across his thesis and decided to hire him. Hoerlein believed that dye molecules could be the key to solving bacterial infection.
The chemists at Bayer would synthesise new chemicals, and then send them to Domagk, and he would then test them on whether they could kill bacteria in vitro, or whether they could prevent mouse deaths from Streptococcus infection. Domagk managed to speed up this process to the point where he could test 30 new chemicals every week.
The chemist on the other end of this process was a man named Josef Klarer. He was the one rushing to make the chemicals for testing. He had tried a number of quinine derivatives, but had no luck. However, in 1932, things would change when he decided to make products based off of  Azo Dye molecules. His first success came with Kl-695**, which Domagk found to protect mice during an infection, even though it didn't seem to kill the bacteria in the petri dish. But based off of this finding, Klarer modified Kl-695 again and again. Until it came to a red dye compound that was at the time named Kl-730. 
Of course, even though this chemical had been proven in mice, it was as of yet unknown whether it would work in humans. But then Domagks daughter fell ill with a streptococcal disease, and desperate, he gave her a dose of the drug, curing her of the disease.
By 1935, Prontosil Red was being trialled internationally, with Leonard Colebrook, himself a frequent experimenter with antibiotics, demonstrating the effectiveness of Prontosil Red in treating pregnant women, albeit with the side effect of turning his patients bright red.  Prontosil Red was the first Sulphanilamide drugs.
Such was the success of this drug that he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1939. However, at this time the Nazi's were running Germany. They held a dim view of the Nobel prizes due to the previous German to win a prize. Carl von Ossietzky was a pacifist, who exposed the Nazi's breaking of the treaty of Versailles by training an air corp, and won the Nobel peace prize for his opposition to the Nazi's. As a result of this, the Nazi's forbade any German from accepting Nobel prizes
So when Domagk won a Nobel prize, he was immediately thrown in jail for a week by the Gestapo. This was enough to convince him not to accept the Nobel prize until 1947, two years after Fleming. 
By this time, Doctors were already discovering the limits of antibiotics. A.J. Cokkinis wrote in 1938 
Inadequate dosage and too short a period not only fail to do any good but seem to lead to the development of acquired resistance on the part of the organism to the drug
Amongst the first to analyse these limitations were a group of researchers based at St Mary's, one of whom was Alexander Fleming**. They had discovered that bacteria could adapt to antibiotic concentrations. The same year, Connor Macleod, a researcher based in New York, investigated this in more detail. He discovered that gradually increasing the amount of antibiotics in broth could increase the numbers of resistant bacteria.
Sulfa drugs like Prontosil Red changed the way medicine worked, and laid down the foundations upon which modern medicine would arise. Unlike penicillin, Prontosil and the related sulphonamide and sulphanilamide drugs could be created entirely synthetically from available chemicals. 
Bayer's technique for finding drugs could best be compared to throwing spaghetti against a wall until it sticks, testing random chemicals until they produced the effects they wanted. and people say that Alexander Fleming relied on luck ! Bayer appeared to be basing its company policy on it.
But the question remains as to why they decided to use dye compounds as antibiotics, how did they even know it could work. It's not like there was someone before them who discovered antibiotics even earlier...was there ?

Wollheim Memorial- Phillip Heinrich Hoerlein
Bayer- Gerhard Domagk
Nobel Prize- Gerhard Domagk

Bentley R. (2009). Different roads to discovery; Prontosil (hence sulfa drugs) and penicillin (hence β-lactams), Journal of Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology, 36 (6) 775-786. DOI:

Macleod C. & Daddi G. (1939). A ''Sulfapyridine-Fast'' Strain of Pneumococcus Type 1, Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, 41 69-71. DOI:


Gerhardt Domagk: The First Man to Triumph Over Infectious Diseases  By Ekkehard Grundmann

* Heinrich Hoerlein would eventually rise up to the managing board of IG farben, which was the conglomerate which ran a number of companies, including Bayer. Originally, it was primarily a dye making company. But it's activities during World War 2 were infamous. It was the company that developed Zyklon B, in the time that Hoerlein served on its board, which is why he found himself at the Nuremberg trials alongside many of the other company directors. It didn't help that at least one of these directors had been conducting experiments at Auschwitz under the direction of the SS. These experiments involved inducing artificial infections deliberately, and then giving the test subject antibiotics to cure the disease. Heinrich Hoerlein was amongst a number of IG Farbens executives who tried to stop the supply of these chemicals once he had found out what the Nazis were doing with them. When this came to light, the charges were dropped, but the reputation of IG Farben never really recovered, and the conglomerate didn't last long after the war, although some of it's constituent companies are still around today.

** Unfortunately the original paper is locked in the vaults of the Lancet, and so I am forced to diminish his role in the discovery of Antibiotic resistance, because there is no way for me to find out exactly what he did.

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