What's common to fungal infections in babies, Dutch Elm disease in trees and mouldy works of art? They can all be cured by a drug called nystatin. And the story of the woman who discovered it - Rachel Fuller Brown - has a lot to learn from.
She was born on November 23, 1898 in Springfield, Massachusetts in USA. Though she grew up poor, her determination to study and succeed never flagged. Impressed by this, her grandmother's friend agreed to sponsor her college education. Rachel attended Mount Holyoke College to study History. However, there she changed her mind after seeing how exciting Chemistry could be - so she took a degree in Chemistry when she passed out in 1920.
In 1926, she finished her PhD from the University of Chicago, but could not sit for the final oral examinations, since she had run out of money. Instead she moved to the Division of Labor and Research, a part of the New York state government. After seven years there, she went to Chicago for a scientific conference, and she finally managed to give her oral exam and get her PhD!
How she found Nystatin
In 1928, Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin from fungi and shown how it could kill bacteria. However with increasing usage, a new problem turned up. While bacterial infections could be cured by the treatment, the patient would get a fungal infection. An anti-fungal antibiotic was needed.
In 1948, the New York state government started a programme to look for such a drug. Elizabeth Lee Hazen, an eminent microbiologist based in New York City, was to look for new kinds of soil microbes that could kill fungi. She did this by putting soil samples into a Petri plate containing nutrients. Those that grew were then grown together with fungus samples. If the fungus failed to grow, the soil microbes were making a potential antibiotic.
Hazen would then pack the sample in a jar and post it to Brown. Brown would then crush up the bacteria to discover what chemical agent was killing the fungi. Those days (in the 1940s and 50s), this took a lot of methods and techniques to separate the various chemicals in the extract. Today we can do it by a sophisticated but very fast method called 'high pressure liquid chromatography'.
If she found anything, Brown would mail the extract back to Hazen, who would test it against fungi to see if it really killed them. By working back and forth, and mailing hundreds of parcels, they discovered many potential anti-fungal drugs. However most of them were dangerous for humans too. Finally, after a lot of false starts and disappointments, they discovered one that was safe for humans in 1950. After four more years of testing, the drug was ready for public use. It was called nystatin in honour of New York State, their employer.
Nystatin kills about 14 kinds of fungi, and is safer than many other antibiotics. In 1966, a flood damaged many works of art in the National Library in Florence, Italy. Nystatin was sprayed on them to prevent growth of fungi - a notable non-medical use of the drug.
The Brown-Hazen Fund
Brown and Hazen patented the drug, so that they would receive royalties from whoever manufactured it. Using the royalty money (which came to $13.4 million), they set up the Brown-Hazen Fund. This Fund was used to provide scholarships to poor students, especially women, to pursue a career in science.
Brown and Hazen continued to collaborate till they retired, running the fund and discovering more antibiotics. Hazen died in 1975, Brown in 1980.