Asprin - the wonder drug
March 1999 was the 100th anniversary of the patenting of aspirin the 20th century wonder drug whose uses now go far beyond the simple headache cure. Along the way it has entered works of literature, introduced us to moving pictures and was taken into space. And its blockbuster career seems poised to continue well into the next century. So here are 20 interesting facts about the ubiquitous little pill.
1- Ancient Egyptians took an infusion of dried myrtle leaves to treat muscle pain, while Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed willow bark tea for the pain of childbirth. The active ingredient of both these remedies is salicylic acid - aspirin's active ingredient.
2- In 1758 the Reverend Edward Stone of Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, chewed a twig of white willow to ease pain and fever. He was so impressed with its effect that he wrote to the Royal Society in 1763 to alert them to its benefits.
3- In 1835 the German chemist Karl Jakob Lowig found a second source of salicyclic acid in Meadowsweet (Spiraea ulmaria), a wild flowering plant that grows on riverbanks.
4- By 1853 salicylic acid was successfully being synthesised in the laboratory, enabling mass production for the first time. But while it was effective in reducing fever and relieving pain, its side-effects were unpleasant: severe irritation of the mouth, oesophagus and stomach.
5- Legend has it that Felix Hoffmann, a 29-year-old pharmaceuticals graduate at the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, had a severely arthritic father who couldn't take salicylic acid because of the side-effects. He asked young Felix to create a gentler alternative, and in I897 his son invented acetyl salicylic acid (ASA) - a new formulation of salicylic acid that could be more easily tolerated.
6- Felix's discovery was shelved when Heinrich Dreser, head of Bayer's testing laboratories, decided not to submit ASA, to further investigation after initial experiments proved unsuccessful. Bayer were also far more interested in another of young Hoffmann's discoveries - a chemical related to morphine which he called diacetylmorphine or diamorphine. Promoted initially as a cough remedy, It was given the brand name `Heroin'. It is now a Class A Controlled Drug.
7- After further, successful, tests ASA was given its brand name, Aspirin, in January 1899 (the `A' stands for acetyl, the `spir' is from Spiraea ulmaria, and the `in' - no one knows).
8- Hoffmann didn't profit from this because the active ingredient of the drug had already been discovered. He retired to Switzerland to study art history. Dreser, however, received a royalty from all medicines tested in his laboratory, and so earned a vast fortune from the drug he'd been reluctant to develop.
9- Initially sold to doctors and hospitals rather than the public, aspirin was an instant success. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset quickly dubbed the 20th century `the Age of Aspirin'.
10- Aspirin was the first `scientific' medicine to be mass-marketed, and the first major product to be sold as a tablet instead of a powder.
11- Today we consume 100 billion aspirin tablets, world-wide, a year:
12- The British prefer their aspirin dissolved; the Americans swallow the tablets whole, the Italians prefer them fizzy, the French take theirs as suppositories. .
13- Aspirin is a Bayer trademark in more than 80 countries. It became a generic term here as a result of anti-German feeling during the World War I when enemy `property', including Bayer's rights to the drug, was confiscated.
14- When the Americans entered the war they seized not only the rights to aspirin, but also Bayer's New York factory and its name. These were sold to U.S. drugs firm Sterling Products for $5 million. But the company couldn't decipher the German instructions for making aspirin - nor work out how to operate the factory. In 1919 it had to seek advice from the Germans - and do a deal on international rights in return.
15- So for nearly 75 years there were two Bayer Aspirins in circulation, made by different companies. It wasn't until 1994 that Bayer in Germany bought back its own name and product in a £650 million deal.
16- The first moving pictures witnessed by thousands of people were images of aspirin. Between the World War I and II, Bayer's agents sent out trucks all over the world, with loudspeakers and film projectors, proclaiming the benefits of the painkiller.
17- The European Aspirin Foundation says that by the late Thirties, these advertisements were being mixed with propaganda. Bayer became part of the conglomerate IG Farben, which allegedly supported the Nazi party, and eventually supplied Zyklon B gas to concentration camps. The aspirin trucks were decorated with swastikas as well as images of the pills. Bayer denies this allegation and says it can trace no evidence of it.
18- Aspirin was the most popular everyday painkiller until the Fifties, when paracetamol was invented. Paracetamol was as effective at killing pain, but didn't cause aspirin's major side effect: bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, which affects up to 6% of users.
19- In the Seventies, Sir John Vane, a chemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital, discovered how aspirin interrupted the communication of pain to the brain - by inhibiting production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances which trigger pain signals. He also found it could reduce blood clotting. Vane received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982 for his research breakthrough.
20- Aspirin is being used to prevent heart attacks and strokes, and is under investigation in the management of bowel cancer (it may prevent dangerous gene mutations and restrict growth of new cancer cells), thromboses (anti-clotting effect), dementia (people who take aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs are four times less likely to develop Alzheimer's), the formation of cataracts (aspirin strengthens eye muscles), and blindness in diabetics (improves blood flow to the eyes). It has been estimated that aspirin could save more than 110,000 lives world-wide each year by helping combat cardiovascular disease.
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