How war promotes drug development

One of the beautiful incongruities of human existence is how our best ideas (and the technological advances they bring about) are usually the result of our need to be better at fighting wars. Nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Radar and microwave ovens. V-2 rockets and spaceflight. Early warning systems and the Internet. The list goes on. An impressive number of common drugs can thank armed conflict for their existence. These can be loosely divided into two categories: 1) those used to help fix injured soldiers (antibiotics, painkillers, etc.) and 2) those used to enhance the performance of combatants (stimulants and sleeping pills). Here are a few of the cool ones:


Only a couple of years prior to the Second World War, even a small laceration could mean a death sentence if it became infected. With no check on their growth other than an often weakened immune system, bacteria could multiply like crazy, and soon it enough it was morgue time. Penicillin (along with the sulfa drugs) helped change things. Although Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, he was unable to come up with a way to mass-produce it. It was not until 1941 that Pfizer got on board and, within a year, came up with a novel fermentation method that could churn out penicillin like Catholics churn out babies. The American government, recognizing that penicillin was better than the sulfa drugs (safer and more potent), ordered all of the big American pharmaceutical companies to start producing a poopload of penicillin. When soldiers got themselves non-fatally shot or blown up on the beaches of Normandy in the summer of '44, penicillin was there to help their wounds from becoming infected. It should be noted that the sulfa drugs also made a huge, and arguably greater contribution, to fighting infections during WWII, but had been developed in the previous decade under peaceful conditions.


Given their aspirations for taking over the world, the higher ups in Nazi Germany realized that they needed to reduce their dependence on foreign resources until such a time as those resources became their own. This led to a boom in artificial substance research, yielding, among other things, synthetic rubber and synthetic oil. And methadone. As morphine was an exclusive export of the somniferous poppy fields of central Asia, within the sphere of influence of the Allies, efforts were made to find a synthetic opioid that could be manufactured at home. This led to the development of Hoechst 10820, better known as methadone, during the war. Initially investigated as a spasmolytic agent, methadone was put on the fast track for development after it's painkilling properties were discovered. Methadone is neat because it doesn't resemble anything found in opium (like morphine) but still is able to act at opioid receptors to produce analgesia. Sadly for all those injured German soldiers, it ended up setting on the shelf until after the war, possibly because the Germans got their doses all wrong and figured it was too toxic. Because it possesses an appreciably longer half-life than opioids that are typically abused (morphine, heroin, oxycodone, etc.), methadone is ideal for a one-a-day dosing in the treatment of opioid dependence. In related news, although morphine itself wasn't anything new at the time of WWII, the Squibb syrette was. A single dose of morphine (sufficient to deaden pain without risking an OD) in a toothpaste tube with a needle. This nifty method of drug containment meant that medics could easily give morphine on the battlefield, helping those injured avoid having to suffer until could be transported to a medical facility.


Mustard gas, a chemical warfare agent that has been employed by armies around the world to kill and disfigure, is responsible for the birth of modern cancer chemotherapy. As I've written about in a previous post, in Italy during WWII a stockpile of the gas was blown up, exposing people in a village nearby. Doctors treating the villagers noticed that they had decreased white cell counts, suggesting that the mustard gas had selectively destroyed them. Since Hodgkin's lymphoma (a type of cancer) was known to originate in lymphocytes (a type of white cell), researchers decided to see if they could use the gas to treat it. They could, and this led to the development of mechlorethamine (Mustargen), an analogue of mustard gas, and a class of drugs known as the nitrogen mustards that ushered in the era of treating cancers directly with drugs.

There is no doubt that those who abuse alcohol and are in need of treatment can find help at California drug detox centers. With all the alcohol rehabilitation success with different people, bipolar treatment centers and other types of treatment programs have been introduced.

- http://home.att.net/~steinert/wwii.htm
- http://www.ampainsoc.org/pub/bulletin/sep00/upda1.htm

2 chemically inspired comments:

Toaster Sunshine said...

It was not until 1941 that Pfizer got on board and, within a year, came up with a novel fermentation method that could churn out penicillin like Catholics churn out babies.

Ooh, burn.

Cary said...

Necessity is the mother of all invention, and when you’re trying to be the most efficient at destroying your enemy, many great products are introduced to facilitate that. I wonder why we haven't seen any major pharmaceutical innovations since the war on terror began.