Monday, January 21, 2013

Vitamin C pills vs oranges: a metaphor for the dueling penicillin of Aussie docs, Florey and Duhig

A nice big fresh juicy orange and a tiny white pill can both have the exact same amount of vitamin c in them : about 100 mg ,  just above the recommended daily intake of the vitamin for a adult.

The synthetic vitamin c pill (first invented in the 1930s) is of course  supposedly pure, but actually consists mostly of "harmless" filler . It is usually taken with a small glass of water.

The orange was - in the eyes of the Modernist 1930s - an impure source of vitamin c. The orange consisted mostly of harmless filler (pulp fibre and a great taste) and about the same amount of water as needed to fill a small glass.

Despite being "impure", a whole (100mg)  orange a day would actually be more healthy for you than taking half (50 mg) of a "pure" pill every day.

All the body craves is its fix of 100 mg of the "C" a day , not whether human minds consider that vitamin c to be pure or impure.

Unless the vitamin c is bound to something that renders it biologically inactive, the body considers it as fully pure and effective and dismisses what sort of filler and water it chanced to come bundled with.

It was exactly same with the human bodies our two wartime Aussie doctors Duhig and Florey had taken a sacred oath to protect.

Heroic penicillin at its best ...

From twelve one liter flasks growing penicillium fungus in his Brisbane hospital lab , in late 1943, Dr James Dunhig got 2500 cc of penicillin juice, averaging at best five biologically active units of penicillin per cc , or about 12,500 units in total.

This crude, impure, liquid was strained but not processed - only kept chilled.

It was almost immediately put into a 42 year dying mother, a patient of Dr Geaney, in various sizes of IV doses (some as large at 600 cc) over a number of days -- and yet this impure medicine saved her life and home she went to her grateful and astonished family.

Dr Florey,originally from Adelaide, from the same 2500 cc of starting penicillin juice grown in his Oxford university lab in late 1943, also started off with 12,500 units of crude, unprocessed, penicillin.

But he chose to refine it over and over and over and over again, losing and destroying most of the penicillin in the long process.

Finally he ended up with a very little pile of relatively pure powder : one tiny mg of dried penicillin,  assaying about 1250 units of biological activity.

But you can't inject dry powder - no matter how pure - into a patient, so some of that oh so expensively extracted water had to be mixed again with the dry penicillin,  if it was to be usefully injected  in a dying patient.

Non-heroic penicillin, at its worst ...

But it wasn't - it was given instead to chemists, to be deliberately destroyed , all to make a more accurate assessment of penicillin's structure by examining its various sub components.

Then (in the middle of a deadly world war)  public domain penicillin could finally - profitably -  be synthetically analogued and  patented.

Just as well that Florey wasn't moved to waste any of his preciously pure penicillin on a dying woman, because 1250 units of penicillin , no matter how pure, couldn't save most dying adults but 12,500 units of impure penicillin sometimes did.

It is as I say, a classic example of the old saying that 'an whole impure orange a day will keep the doctor away, but half a pill of pure little white pill will not' ...

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