The term "antibiotic" (from the Greek αντί – anti, "against" + βιοτικός – biotikos, "fit for life) was coined by Selman Waksman in 1942 to describe any substance produced by a micro-organism that is antagonistic to the growth of other micro-organisms in high dilution. This original definition excluded naturally occurring substances, such as gastric juice and hydrogen peroxide (they kill micro-organisms but are not produced by micro-organisms), and also excluded synthetic compounds such as the sulfonamides (which are antimicrobial agents). Many antibiotics are relatively small molecules with a molecular weight less than 2000 Da.
With advances in medicinal chemistry, most antibiotics are now modified chemically from original compounds found in nature, as is the case with beta-lactams (which include the penicillins, produced by fungi in the genus Penicillium, the cephalosporins, and the carbapenems). Some antibiotics are still produced and isolated from living organisms, such as the aminoglycosides; in addition, many more have been created through purely synthetic means, such as the quinolones.
The environment of individual antibiotics varies with the location of the infection, the ability of the antibiotic to reach the site of infection, and the ability of the microbe to inactivate or excrete the antibiotic. Some anti-bacterial antibiotics destroy bacteria (bactericidal), whereas others prevent bacteria from multiplying (bacteriostatic).
Oral antibiotics are simply ingested, while intravenous antibiotics are used in more serious cases, such as deep-seated systemic infections. Antibiotics may also sometimes be administered topically, as with eye drops or ointments.
In the last few years three new classes of antibiotics have been brought into clinical use. This follows a 40-year hiatus in discovering new classes of antibiotic compounds. These new antibiotics are of the following three classes: cyclic lipopeptides (daptomycin), glycylcyclines (tigecycline), and oxazolidinones (linezolid). Tigecycline is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, while the two others are used for Gram-positive infections. These developments show promise as a means to counteract the growing bacterial resistance to existing antibiotics.
Although potent antibiotic compounds for treatment of human diseases caused by bacteria (such as tuberculosis, bubonic plague, or leprosy) were not isolated and identified until the twentieth century, the first known use of antibiotics was by the ancient Chinese over 2,500 years ago. Many other ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks and medieval Arabs already used molds and plants to treat infections, owing to the production of antibiotic substances by these organisms, a phenomenon known as antibiosis
Antibiosis was first described in 1877 in bacteria when Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch observed that an airborne bacillus could inhibit the growth of Bacillus anthracis. The antibiotic properties of Penicillium sp. were first described in France by Ernest Duchesne in 1897. However, his work went by without much notice from the scientific community until Alexander Fleming's discovery of Penicillin.
Modern research on antibiotic therapy began in Germany with the development of the narrow-spectrum antibiotic Salvarsan by Paul Ehrlich in 1909, for the first time allowing an efficient treatment of the then-widespread problem of Syphilis. The drug, which was also effective against other spirochaetal infections, is no longer in use in modern medicine.
Antibiotics were further developed in Britain following the discovery of Penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. More than ten years later, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey became interested in his work, and came up with the purified form of penicillin. The three shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine. In 1939, Rene Dubos isolated gramicidin, one of the first commercially manufactured antibiotics in use during World War II to prove highly effective in treating wounds and ulcers. Florey credited Dubos for reviving his research on penicillin.
Prontosil, the first commercially available antibacterial antibiotic was developed by a research team led by Gerhard Domagk (who received the 1939 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his efforts) at the Bayer Laboratories of the I.G. Farben conglomerate in Germany. Prontosil had a relatively broad effect against Gram-positive cocci but not against enterobacteria. The discovery and development of this first sulfonamide drug opened the era of antibiotics.
At the highest level, antibiotics can be classified as either bactericidal or bacteriostatic. Bactericidals kill bacteria directly where bacteriostatics prevent them from dividing. However, these classifications are based on laboratory behavior; in practice, both of these are capable of ending a bacterial infection. Classes of antibiotics include aminoglycosides, ansamycins, carbacephem, carbapenems, cephalosporins, glycopeptides, macrolides, monobactams, penicillins, polypeptides, quinolones, sulfonamides, and tetracyclines, along with others.
Since the first pioneering efforts of Florey and Chain in 1939, the importance of antibiotics to medicine has led to much research into discovering and producing them. The process of production usually involves screening of wide ranges of microorganisms, testing and modification. Production is carried out using fermentation, usually in strongly aerobic form.
Hypothetically, some antibiotics might interfere with the efficiency of birth control pills. However there have been no conclusive studies that proved that; on the contrary, the majority of the studies indicate that antibiotics do not interfere with contraception, even though there is a possibility that a small percentage of women may experience decreased effectiveness of birth control pills while taking an antibiotic.
Common forms of antibiotic misuse include failure to take into account the patient's weight and history of prior antibiotic use when prescribing, since both can strongly affect the efficacy of an antibiotic prescription, failure to take the entire prescribed course of the antibiotic, failure to prescribe or take the course of treatment at fairly precise correct daily intervals (e.g. "every 8 hours" rather than merely "3x per day"), or failure to rest for sufficient recovery to allow clearance of the infecting organism. These practices may facilitate the development of bacterial populations with antibiotic resistance. Inappropriate antibiotic treatment is another common form of antibiotic misuse. A common example is the prescription and use of antibiotics to treat viral infections such as the common cold that have no effect.
Excessive use of prophylactic antibiotics in travelers may also be classified as misuse.
Use or misuse of antibiotics may result in the development of antibiotic resistance by the infecting organisms, similar to the development of pesticide resistance in insects. Evolutionary theory of genetic selection requires that as close as possible to 100% of the infecting organisms be killed off to avoid selection of resistance; if a small subset of the population survives the treatment and is allowed to multiply, the average susceptibility of this new population to the compound will be much less than that of the original population, since they have descended from those few organisms that survived the original treatment. This survival often results from an inheritable resistance to the compound that was infrequent in the original population, but became more frequent in the descendants.
Antibiotic resistance has become a serious problem in both developed and underdeveloped nations. By 1984 half of those with active tuberculosis in the United States had a strain that resisted at least one antibiotic. In certain settings, such as hospitals and some childcare locations, the rate of antibiotic resistance is so high that the usual, low-cost antibiotics are virtually useless for treatment of frequently seen infections. This leads to more frequent use of newer and more expensive compounds, which in turn leads to the rise of resistance to those drugs. A struggle to develop new antibiotics ensues to prevent losing future battles against infection. To date, tuberculosis and pneumococcus are prominent examples of once easily treated infections where drug-resistance has become a problem.
Another example of selection is Staphylococcus aureus ('golden staph'), which could be treated successfully with penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s. At present, nearly all strains are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant to nafcillin, leaving only a narrow selection of drugs such as vancomycin useful for treatment. The situation is complicated by the fact that genes coding for antibiotic resistance can be transferred between bacteria via plasmids, making it possible for bacteria never exposed to an antibiotic to acquire resistance from those which have. The problem of antibiotic resistance is made more widespread when antibiotics are used to treat disorders in which they have no efficacy, such as the common cold or other viral complaints, and when they are used broadly as prophylaxis rather than treatment (as in, for example, animal feeds), because this exposes more bacteria to selection for resistance.
One solution to combat resistance currently being researched is the development of pharmaceutical compounds that would revert multiple antibiotic resistance. These so called resistance modifying agents may target and inhibit MDR mechanisms, rendering the bacteria susceptible to antibiotics to which they were previously resistant. These compounds targets include among others
The comparative ease of identifying compounds which safely cured bacterial infections was more difficult to duplicate in treatments of fungal and viral infections. Antibiotic research led to great strides in the knowledge of biochemistry, establishing large differences between the cellular and molecular physiology of the bacterial cell and that of the mammalian cell. This explained the observation that many compounds that are toxic to bacteria are non-toxic to human cells. In contrast, the basic biochemistries of the fungal cell and the mammalian cell are much more similar. This restricts the development and use of therapeutic compounds that attack a fungal cell, while not harming mammalian cells. Similar problems exist in antibiotic treatments of viral diseases. Human viral metabolic biochemistry is very closely similar to human biochemistry, and the possible targets of antiviral compounds are restricted to very few components unique to a mammalian virus.
Research into bacteriophages for use as antibiotics is presently ongoing. Several types of bacteriophage appear to exist that are specific for each bacterial taxonomic group or species. Research into bacteriophages for medicinal use is just beginning, but has led to advances in microscopic imaging. While bacteriophages provide a possible solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance, there is no clinical evidence yet that they can be deployed as therapeutic agents to cure disease.
Phage therapy has been used in the past on humans in the US and Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, but these treatments had mixed results. With the discovery of penicillin in the 1940s, Europe and the US changed therapeutic strategies to using antibiotics. However, in the former Soviet Union phage therapies continued to be studied. In the Republic of Georgia, the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology & Virology continues to research the use of phage therapy. Various companies and foundations in North America and Europe are currently researching phage therapies. However, phage are living and reproducing; concerns about genetic engineering in freely released viruses currently limit certain aspects of phage therapy.
Bacteriocins are also a growing alternative to the classic small-molecule antibiotics . Different classes of bacteriocins have different potential as therapeutic agents. Small molecule bacteriocins (microcins, for example, and lantibiotics) may be similar to the classic antibiotics; colicin-like bacteriocins are more likely to be narrow-spectrum, demanding new molecular diagnostics prior to therapy but also not raising the spectre of resistance to the same degree. One drawback to the large molecule antibiotics is that they will have relative difficulty crossing membranes and travelling systemically throughout the body. For this reason, they are most often proposed for application topically or gastrointestinally. Because bacteriocins are peptides, they are more readily engineered than small molecules. This may permit the generation of cocktails and dynamically improved antibiotics that are modified to overcome resistance.
Probiotics are another alternative that goes beyond traditional antibiotics by employing a live culture which may establish itself as a symbiont, competing, inhibiting, or simply interfering with colonization by pathogens. It may produce antibiotics or bacteriocins, essentially providing the drug in vivo and in situ, potentially avoiding the side effects of systemic administration.