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Story of Nystatin®

Drs Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Brown co-patented one of the most widely acclaimed wonder drugs of the post-Second World War years.  Hazen and Brown's work was stimulated by the wartime need to find a cure for the fungus infections that afflicted many military personnel.  Scientists had been feverishly searching for an antibiotic toxic enough to kill the fungi, but safe enough for human use, since, unfortunately, the new "wonder drugs"-- such as penicillin and streptomycin -- killed the very bacteria in the body that controlled the fungi.  It was to discover a fungicide without that double effect that Brown, of New York State's Department of Health in New York, and Hazen, a senior microbiologist at the Department of Health in Laboratories at Albany began their long-distance collaboration.


Based upon Hazen's previous research at Columbia University, where she had built an impressive collection of fungus cultures, both were convinced that an antifungal organism already existed in certain soils.  They divided the work. Hazen methodically screened and cultured scores of soil samples, which she then sent to her partner, who prepared extracts, isolated and purified active agents, and shipped them back to New York, where Hazen could study their biological properties.  On a 1948 vacation, Hazen fortuitously collected a clump of soil from the edge of W. B. Nourse's cow pasture in Fauquier County Virginia, that, when tested, revealed the presence of the microorganisms.  In farm owner Nourse's honor, Hazen named it Streptomyces noursei, and within a year the two scientists knew that the properties of their substance distinguished it from previously described antibiotics.  After further research they eventually reduced their substance to a fine, yellow powder, which they first named "fungiciden," then renamed "Nystatin" (to honor the New York State laboratory) when they learned the previous name was already in use.  Of their major discovery, Brown said lightly -- that it simply illustrated "how unpredictable consequences can come from rather modest beginnings."


Fungi, of which there are over 100,000 species, including yeasts and other single-celled organisms, as well as the common molds and mushrooms, were formerly classified as members of the plant kingdom. However, in reality they are very different from plants and today they are placed in a separate group altogether. The principal reason for this is that none of them possesses chlorophyll, and since they cannot synthesize their own carbohydrates, they obtain their supplies either from the breakdown of dead organic matter, or from other living organisms. Furthermore the walls of fungal cells are not made of cellulose, as those of plants are, but of another complex sugar-like polymer called chitin.  Chitin is the material from which the hard outer skeletons of shrimps, spiders, and insects are made.  The difference between the chemical composition of the cell walls of fungi and those of plants is of enormous importance because it enables the tips of the growing hyphae, the threadlike cells of the fungus, to secrete enzymes that break down the walls of plant cells without having any effect on those - of the fungus itself.  It is these cellulose-destroying enzymes that enable fungi to attack anything made from wood, wood pulp, cotton, flax, or other plant material.  The destructive power of fungi is impressive. They are a major cause of structural damage to building timbers, a cause of disease in animals and humans, and one of the greatest causes of agricultural losses.  


Entire crops can be wiped out by fungal attacks both before and after harvesting.      Some fungi can grow at +50°C, while others can grow at -5°C, so even food in cold storage may not be completely safe from them.  On the other hand, fungi bring about the decomposition of dead organic matter, thus enriching the soil and returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. They also enter into a number of mutually beneficial relationships with plants and other organisms.  In addition, fungi are the source of many of the most potent antibiotics used in clinical medicine, including penicillin.