Antimicrobial drugs are drugs designed to kill, or prevent the growth of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses). Bacteria, fungi, and viruses are responsible for almost all of the common infectious diseases found in North America from athlete's foot, to AIDS, to ulcers (as of 2001). Interestingly enough, many disorders formerly thought to be caused by other factors, like stress, are now known to be caused by bacteria. For example, it has been shown that many ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, and not by stress, as many originally thought. Thus, antimicrobials represent an important part of medicine today.
The history of antimicrobials begins with the observations of Pasteur and Joubert, who discovered that one type of bacteria could prevent the growth of another. They did not know at that time that the reason one bacteria failed to grow was that the other bacteria was producing an antibiotic. Technically, antibiotics are only those substances that are produced by one microorganism that kill, or prevent the growth, of another microorganism. Of course, in today's common usage, the term antibiotic is used to refer to almost any drug that cures a bacterial infection. Antimicrobials include not just antibiotics, but synthetically formed compounds as well.
The discovery of antimicrobials like penicillin and tetracycline paved the way for better health for millions around the world. Before 1941, the year penicillin was discovered, no true cure for gonorrhea, strep throat, orpneumonia existed. Patients with infected wounds often had to have a wounded limb removed, or face death from infection. Now, most of these infections can be easily cured with a short course of antimicrobials.
However, the future effectiveness of antimicrobial therapy is somewhat in doubt. Microorganisms, especially bacteria, are becoming resistant to more and more antimicrobial agents. Bacteria found in hospitals appear to be especially resilient, and are causing increasing difficulty for the sickest patients-those in the hospital. Currently, bacterial resistance is combated by the discovery of new drugs. However, microorganisms are becoming resistant more quickly than new drugs are being found, Thus, future research in antimicrobial therapy may focus on finding how to overcome resistance to antimicrobials, or how to treat infections with alternative means.
Michael Zuck, Ph.D.