A hundred years ago, tuberculosis (TB) was one of the most common causes of death, and isolation hospitals were common. Nobel Prize-winning research on guinea pigs led to the first antibiotic effective against TB.

Streptomycin saved millions of lives after being isolated in 1943 by the Russian born scientist Professor Selman Waksman. It has been estimated that between 1700 and 1900, Mycobacterium tuberculosis accounted for one in seven of all deaths in the world. A hundred years ago isolation hospitals to prevent the spread of TB infection were common.

As a microbiologist, Selman Waksman studied soil microbes. He used his expertise to investigate how TB bacteria are destroyed in the soil, concluding that microbes were responsible. More the 10,000 different soil microbes were studied before streptomycin was discovered. It had low toxicity in animals and protected mice, guinea-pigs, and chicks against many disease-causing bacteria including those causing tuberculosis, plague and pneumonia. Tests in humans then showed excellent results.

Accepting his Nobel Prize in 1952, Waksman warned of resistance of bacteria to streptomycin - in fact, random mutations by TB bacteria  eventually cause resistance to all drugs. The current challenge is to  expose further weak links in the bug. For example, researchers are examining gene therapy following animal research showing that absence of a gene known as CCR2 increases susceptibility to TB.

Also see this Society for General Microbiology briefing paper.

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