About this Article
Written by: Garrett Weaver
Written on: April 2nd, 2008
Tags: biomedical engineering, health & medicine
Thumbnail by: Pitel/Flickr
About the Author
In Spring 2008, Garrett was a sophomore at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering set to graduate with a degree in Biomedical Engineering in May 2010.
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Volume X Issue II > Working Against Our Evolution: The Positive and Negative Effects of Antibiotic Use in Humans and Emerging Alternatives
The introduction of antibiotics in the twentieth century has led to their widespread use, as they have become a prevalent class of drugs prescribed worldwide. A continuous demand for antibiotics has circulated throughout the medical community to treat ailments that range from the common throat infection to life-threatening staphylococcus infections. Increased usage of antibiotics by the public has been associated with a rise in drug-resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria, a trend that poses a large problem for the medical community. Multiple solutions that have been proposed to ensure the continued treatment of bacterial infections, including limiting the use of antibiotics and the introduction of new advancements to treat such infections.

Birth of a "Miracle Drug"

Figure 1: Antibiotic pills.
A slight fever, difficulty swallowing, chills, and a bright red throat -- these are symptoms associated with a common throat infection caused by streptococcus, a pathogenic bacterium [1]. Up until the early 20th century, no effective treatments were available to treat an ailment that is now considered non-threatening in the public eye. Even when under the care of a physician, other bacterial infections involved serious complications and fatality in many cases. Now, such infections are easily cured by using antiobiotics (see Fig. 1), which were once considered a "miracle drug" in the years of World War II [2].
The roots of antibiotics trace back to Alexander Fleming, an English scientist who isolated a mold that inhibits the growth of bacteria. This mold would go on to become known as penicillin, the name of the derived metabolite that demonstrates the ability to breakdown bacterial cells [2]. From this point on, drug companies placed a large emphasis on the discovery of other molds and organic materials that could be used to derive and synthesize new antibiotics. Currently, antibiotics are the second most prescribed class of drugs in the United States [3]. Such a fact validates the significant impact of Fleming's discovery on the current medical system.
The 21st century poses a new challenge for the medical community, to retain the effectiveness of antibiotics that are currently in use. The success of antibiotics is limited by the fact that increased use can strengthen the resistance of the particular pathogen that is being treated. With an improved understanding of bacterial cells and their ability to become resistant, scientists look to maintain the efficacy of antibiotics and develop alternative methods to treat pathogenic strains. In the coming years, researchers will have to balance the benefits of antibiotics with the looming threat of creating a "superbug" that no known antibiotic can treat.