Selman Waksman (1969) - Successes and Failures in Search for Antibiotics

Selman Waksman (1969)

Successes and Failures in Search for Antibiotics

Selman Waksman (1969)

Successes and Failures in Search for Antibiotics

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„Man of the soil“, Time magazine titled a story on Selman Waksman in April 1949, and this headline hit the mark. The rich black soil around his rural Ukrainian hometown was an early inspiration and lasting memory for Waksman, who immigrated to the United States from Tsarist Russia at the age of 22 in 1910. His first academic degree was a B.SC. in agriculture, which he obtained in 1915. In the same year, he became interested in soil microbes named actinomycetes, which he systematically studied for the next decades in huge numbers and great detail, eventually leading to the discovery of the first antibiotic remedy against tuberculosis, streptomycin, on October 19, 1943, by his graduate student Albert Schatz. „Neither are you a physiologist nor a physician, but still your contribution to the advancement of medicine has been of paramount importance. Streptomycin has already saved thousands of human lives. As physicians, we regard you as one of the greatest benefactors to mankind“ Selman Waksman was praised when he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1952[1]. Today we know better how important Schatz’ role in the discovery really was[2], yet Waksman certainly was the originator and leader of the research project. In the first half of this second lecture he held in Lindau, Waksman gives an overview on the history of antibiotics with an emphasis on his own arduous research program: „In the soil, microbes are living in mixed populations, millions upon millions of different kinds of microbes living side by side. It was only logical to ask the question how do they affect one another. To my greatest surprise I found that some of them have a greatly stimulating effect upon other microbes, while others have a greatly injurious effect upon other microbes.“ The questions „How do they do it? Why do they do it? And what use can be made of this particular information?“ that arose from this observation, finally paved the way to the discovery of streptomycin. In summarizing the history of antibiotics, Waksman shows reverence to two German Nobel laureates: „It was in this country that Paul Ehrlich isolated Salvarsan, and Ehrlich himself prophesized that it will not take very long before chemical compounds will be found that will do for bacterial infections what Salvarsan did for syphilis. But it took a quarter of a century before Domagk again in this country demonstrated the capacity of the sulfa drugs to inhibit bacterial growth. It seemed that only the chemical industry will contribute these life-saving drugs but to the greatest astonishment primarily of the chemical profession came the antibiotics.“The story of antibiotics has not come to an end, says Waksman, who in this lecture also tells about his encounters with India’s Prime Minister Nehru and with the Emperor of Japan. He mentions the limitations of many antibiotics due to their toxic side effects and speaks about the therapeutic potential of semi-synthetic penicillin. He wonders whether antibiotics might offer any hope for the control of cancers. And he informs his audience that the antineoplastic antibiotic actinomycin D as a laboratory tool „has helped to solve the riddle of the genetic code“. „Where do the antibiotics stay at the present moment?“ Waksman finally asks. Unfortunately in a „leveling-off period“ he says, because of the thalidomide tragedy[3] that during the 1960s globally lead to the introduction of strict rules for testing the toxicity and tolerability of pharmaceutical drugs. „Because of the toxic effects of some antibiotics the government and the FDA have become extremely demanding“. As a result, only very few new antibiotics have been launched in recent years, Waksman says. „Have we reached the end of antibiotics development? Only time will tell...“

Joachim Pietzsch

[1] cf. Award ceremony speech: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1952/press.html

[2] cf. Peter Pringle. Notebooks shed light on an antibiotic’s contested discovery. The New York Times, June 11, 2012. – Veronique Mistiaen. Time, and the great healer. The Guardian, November 2, 2002.

[3] Kim, JH; Scialli, AR. Thalidomide: The tragedy of birth defects and the effective treatment of disease. Toxicological Sciences 122 (1): 1–6 (2011)

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