By: John P. Swann, Ph.D.
This Veterans Day we remember that nearly 75 years ago dozens of American academic, commercial, nonprofit, and governmental institutions – including FDA – joined together in a race to provide a promising but complex and unstable medicine to troops fighting in World War II — penicillin. Knowing that infection is the major killer in wars, not battle injuries, their goal was to help turn a British discovery into a crucial wartime medical contribution and what would become an indispensable therapeutic agent long after that conflict ended.
Many people are familiar with the story of Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of a Penicillium mold that had contaminated — and surprisingly destroyed — his cultures of pathogenic organisms.
Though Fleming and several others in the next decade studied the mold filtrate, known as penicillin, it was Howard Florey and his colleagues at Oxford who uncovered the drug’s chemotherapeutic potential. Their work began with studies in mice in May 1940 and transitioned to a handful of clinical cases nine months later. However, the drug was difficult to purify. Also, it presented an immense challenge to produce in sufficient quantities for study, and with Britain under siege firms there were too involved in other aspects of the war effort to offer much assistance. So Florey and a colleague came to the U. S. in the summer of 1941 for help.
Among the first sites they visited was the Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL) in Illinois, which had extensive experience in fermentation work, and from there they contacted several drug and chemical companies to drum up support. Americans quickly combined forces to tackle the challenge. The federal Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the federal entity that organized and facilitated investigations to support the war effort, arranged to act as a clearing-house for the latest research on chemical and other studies of penicillin, exchanging data with dozens of organizations in the U.S. and Britain. NRRL developed several production modifications that increased the yield of penicillin by 100 fold.
FDA’s first experience with the potential wonder drug was around September 1942, when the NRRL Director approached FDA about testing the antibacterial effectiveness of a small quantity of penicillin. A year later, enough of the drug had been produced to confirm in 200 patients what the early results at Oxford had suggested, and penicillin was ready to enter the war. First, however, OSRD asked that FDA certify every lot produced by the half-dozen or so manufacturers, a task the agency also performed for insulin under statutory authority that began in 1941. Six FDA technicians certified samples for potency, absence of fever-producing contaminants, toxicity, sterility, and optimum moisture, which can affect the drug’s stability. So scarce was penicillin that companies always reconditioned the occasional rejected lot rather than destroying it.
By the end of the war, some of the participating firms had increased purity of the drug from the Oxford group’s one percent to about 85 percent. Penicillin was not only more potent, it was also more abundant, its production having increased by a factor of 500 from 1943 to 1945. In fact, by 1945 the output of penicillin, formerly under severe restriction outside of military and scientific use, was now available for most civilian needs as well. In a few years the cost of producing penicillin had decreased so much that the glass used to store ampules of the drug cost more than the drug itself. FDA’s wartime work was codified in the Penicillin Amendment of 1945, which mandated FDA’s certification of penicillin and, through subsequent laws, most other antibiotics — a responsibility that continued for nearly four decades, when the need for government testing no longer existed based on industry’s record of production.
But it all started with an international effort to provide a lifesaving drug to the armed forces, bringing together all sorts of scientific and medical institutions, including FDA. Like so many others participating in this collaboration on a scale unseen up to that point, FDA played a small but critical role to support our troops at this time of global crisis.
John P. Swann, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian