Medicines play an important role in our daily lives, imagining life without them is almost impossible, especially in this age of information where we don’t have much time to invest in our health. Without medicines, we wouldn’t have a cure for various deadly diseases, polio won’t be eradicated and humankind would always be a slave to virus and bacterias.
Before we start, while they are not medicines of any sort on their own, but their discovery has revolutionized the field of medical sciences. Here are 18 most important medicines in the history of the humankind that saved billions of lives.
A steroid hormone (space filling model)
If you think steroid is only used by athletes to increase their performance levels, then you would be wrong as it has a practical and ‘legal’ use in many medical conditions. These conditions include systemic vasculitis (inflammation in blood vessels) and myositis (muscle inflammation). Steroids are also used to treat complex medical conditions such as arthritis, rheumatoid, lupus and gout.
Structure of L-DOPA
L-DOPA is an effective drug against the Parkinson’s disease and Segawa Syndrome (Dopamine-responsive dystonia), where it is used to increase dopamine concentration in the patient’s central nervous system. Although the very first tests on L-DOPA was performed by Nobel prize winner scientist Arvid Carlsson in the 1950s, practical treatments with this drug were only made possible clinically after the works of George Cotzias and his fellows in 1957.
Image Courtesy: Melvil
Lasix is a generally used to prevent any further damages after a cognitive heart failure (edema), liver and chronic kidney disease. First discovered in 1962, it is one of the essential medicines listed by UN’s WHO, but it’s also on the top of banned drugs list of the World Anti-Doping Agency due to serious concerns over its ability to mask other illegal drugs in the process.
Lanoxin or digoxin is another important medicine to treat various critical heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation/ flutter, and heart failure. Although its place is now taken by more advanced medicines like diuretic and ACE inhibitor, it is still used to treat patients who showed no signs of improvements after other treatments. Digoxin is also used in abortions during the late stages of pregnancy.
14. Birth Control Pills
Various birth Control Pills
Although birth control and contraceptive means have been used since the ancient times, more efficient and effective methods only became widespread in the late 20th century or so. The introduction of better means of birth control has a positive impact on the world both economically and socially.
Components of a Humira autoinjector pen
Commercially sold under the name of Humira, it is widely used in conditions such as rheumatoid/ psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, chronic psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and hidradenitis suppurativa (chronic skin condition). This anti-inflammatory medicine was first discovered during a joint research project between Bioresearch Corporation (BASF) and Cambridge Antibody Technology in the late 1990s.
12. Chemotherapy Drugs
Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is one of the many possible cancer treatments in practice that uses multiple anti-cancer agents to destroy cancer cells. To date, there are more than 30 different chemotherapy drugs which are divided into several categories.
Even though the first ever use of a chemotherapeutic agent to treat cancer was done in the 1940s, the beginnings (unintentional) of the modern era cancer chemotherapy can be traced from the beginning of World War I, when nitrogen mustard gas was used by the Germans against the allied forces.
Structural diagram of zidovudine (AZT)
Although incurable, the effects of HIV/AIDS can be effectively slowed down with the help of highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART. The therapy consists of a new class of medicines known as reverse-transcriptase inhibitors and zidovudine or more commonly AZT is an important part of it.
It can be used to prevent spreading of the disease from mother-to-child during pregnancy after a previous exposure. This medicine was also used for PEP or post-exposure prophylaxis, where, it’s used in a combination with other antiretroviral meds such as lamivudine, it effectively reduces the risk of infection after an initial exposure to the deadly virus.
10. Alprazolam/ Xanax
According to Forbes, alprazolam, or more commonly known as xanax, was the 12th most prescribed drug in the United States in 2010. Xanax is a powerful sedative and antidepressant medicine that is used to treat panic and anxiety disorders alongside nausea which can be triggered during or after chemotherapy.
Xanax belongs to the benzodiazepine class of medicines which amplifies the effects of GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid at the GABAA receptor in our central nervous system, causing a muscle relaxant, sedative, and anxiolytic feeling for a short time. Overdoes or high doses of Xanax may lead to amnesia and adverse psychological effects.
9. HIV protease inhibitors
As the name suggests, this medicine is used to treat HIV/AIDS, but it’s also used in several cases of hepatitis C. The medicine prevents replication of the virus by selectively binding to viral proteolysis enzymes and blocking necessary proteolytic cleavage of protein progenitor for the growth and production of virus. Right now there are at least ten commercial HIV protease inhibitors, which are available for medical use.
The structure of Salvarsan
Salvarsan or compound 606 is one of the earliest drug used to treat syphilis and African sleeping sickness. It was chemically synthesized for the first time in 1907 by Alfred Bertheim and Paul Ehrlich. Then in 1909, its antisyphilitic properties were discovered by Japanese bacteriologist Sahachiro Hata while going through hundreds of arsenic compounds.
7. Polio Vaccine
An ancient Egyptian stone slab illustrating (probably) a polio victim, dated 1403-1365 BC
Poliomyelitis or simply polio was first identified as a distinct medical condition for the first time in 1789 by British physician Michael Underwood before it became a major epidemic during the 19th century affecting every corner of the world. Then in the 20th century, polio became one of the major concern for health organizations which affected most of the world younger generation.
When polio vaccines first came into the scene in the late 1930s and 1940s, they took by storm. There are basically two types polio vaccines that have a slightly different working mechanism. According to the WHO report, the two vaccines have reduced the total number of reported cases per year from 350,000 in 1988 to 37 in 2016.
Morton’s demonstration of ether’s use as a anesthetic
Ether was known to us hundreds of years before it was initially used as an effective sedative agent. It was ether that paved the way for modern and more efficient sedatives and anesthetic. Can you imagine your arm being amputated while you are conscious? Horrible isn’t it?
The drug simply works by suppressing patients’ brain waves or activities to a certain low point from where it cannot sense pain. As mentioned earlier, many classes of sedatives have been built upon ether since its discovery.
Coated aspirin tablets
Aspirin is widely used as a general remedy for pain, fever and several types of inflammatory diseases such as pericarditis, Kawasaki disease etc. It also has a practical use after the initial or first heart attack to prevent the second one. Aspirin is simply more than just a simple headache reviler and it’s used to treat severe inflammatory conditions such as pericarditis, rheumatic fever and Kawasaki disease,
An ampoule of morphine
Morphine is a naturally occurring opiate, which is generally used as a pain medication. Since its discovery in the early 1800s, morphine is extensively used in wars such as the American Civil War, World War I and II as an effective pain reliever for soldiers. At present, it’s mostly used during myocardial infarction (heart attack) and during labor.
Although extremely useful, the drug has some serious side effects that include problem in breathing, low blood pressure, vomiting and constipation among other common problems after long-term use. It also has a high addiction rate, which most of the time can lead to abuse.
3. Smallpox Vaccine
Dr. Edward Jenner performing his first smallpox vaccination on 14th May, 1796
Smallpox was once the deadliest diseases in the world, which was known to humans since 1500 BC or even before that. According to the historians, smallpox most probably began in Egypt and by the mid-18th century it became a major endemic disease everywhere in the world except in Australia and in several small isolated islands.
It all changed in 1796, when Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine for the first time. Throughout the 20th century, many important improvements were made to the medicine to help eradicate smallpox. According to the record book, the last ever case of smallpox in the Americas occurred in 1971, most of Asia in 1972, and Bangladesh in 1975.
No list of important medicine is complete without insulin. Insulin is the de facto medicine to treat high blood sugar. Insulin is effective against diabetes type 1, type 2, gestational diabetes in women (high blood sugar during pregnancy), during various diabetic complications such as hyperosmolar hyperglycemic states and ketoacidosis.
A lab technician preparing purified penicillin in 1940s
Without a doubt, penicillin is the most important discovery in the field of medical sciences. It was discovered by Scottish microbiologist and pharmacologist Sir Alexander Fleming back in 1928 but it took more than 20 years or so to use it as an anti-bacterial medicine.
It became one of first few antibacterial medications which successfully acted against deadly gram positive pathogens such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. Cecil George Paine, a pathologist attains the first ever successfully recorded treatment of a viral infection with penicillin on November 25, 1930.
Although effective, its extensive use over certain types of bacteria has lead them to evolve and develop natural resistance against the drug and other anti-bacterial medicines. Medically, these new types of pathogens are called super-bugs.