The Pulse
3:33 pm
Mon January 7, 2013

85 years later, penicillin still vital for Rhode Islanders

85 years ago, Alexander Fleming discovered some mold growing in one of his petri dishes. In his lab at Oxford, Fleming noticed a substance the mold produced inhibited the growth of some species of bacteria. But the substance was difficult to work with, and the discovery lingered untapped for many years.

In the late 1930s, E. B. Chain and H. W. Florey took another look at penicillin, running the first lab tests on mice. They would later share a Nobel prize with Fleming for their work. By the early 1940s, penicillin went into mass production, changing medicine forever.

Penicillin remains the gold standard for treating an infection that's been steadily increasing in Rhode Island for the past five years: syphilis.

Since then, we've developed a variety of antibiotics. But we've used them so much that some bacteria have evolved a resistance to certain antibiotics. There are troubling strains of antiobiotic resistant TB, MRSA (staph infection), and gonorrhea. Not good, because there's hardly a trickle of new antibiotic drugs in the development pipeline.

But penicillin remains the gold standard for treating an infection that's been steadily increasing in Rhode Island for the past five years: syphilis. One injection of penicillin is all that's needed to treat someone who's had syphilis for a year or less. (The key is catching it early. Syphilis can go unnoticed, or mistaken for other diseases. Left untreated, it can damage organs and even kill you.)

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