Patent of the Month May


Process for mass production of penicillin

Penicillin, one of the best known and most commonly used antibiotics, has revolutionised the therapy of infectious diseases. The American chemist Andrew J. Moyer made a significant contribution to this development. Driven by the huge demand for antibiotics during the Second World War, his research and coordination work enabled the mass production of penicillin to be realised in a very short period of time. For this he was inducted into the prestigious Inventors Hall of Fame! The patent application US2442141A of the "Method for the production of penicillin" developed by him was filed in the USA exactly 75 years ago, on 11th May 1948. It represents a milestone in pharmaceutical process engineering and is therefore our patent of the month

The discovery of penicillin and its broad antibiotic effects in 1928 can be traced back to the Scottish physician and microbiologist Sir Alexander Fleming. The professor of bacteriology at the University of London received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery in 1945, together with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. Florey and his research team developed the substance into a clinically effective product in the following decade. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 it became urgently necessary to produce large amounts of the antibiotic. However, European pharmaceutical industries were unable to do so due to the war situation.

Together with his colleague Norman Heatley, Florey therefore sought support in the United States and was referred to the ministry's Northern Research Laboratory (NRRL) in Peoria, Illinois. There they met Andrew J. Moyer, the director at the time, who was already working on industrial-scale penicillin production, together with the US company Merck & Co. The American scientist then initiated the British-American cooperation of the research teams, which proved extremely fruitful: within only six months, the researchers achieved exponentially higher yields in the cultivation of penicillin strains by varying the culture media as well as the procedural preparation. In the process registered by Moyer, a culture medium made of maize seedlings and molasses as well as a special penicillin strain are used for the optimised production of penicillin. It is interesting to note that Moyer puts his invention at the service of a good cause and explicitly waives his claim to royalties. One would have liked to see this attitude a little more from the large pharamaceutical companies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supported by administrative funding from the US government and strong industrial partners, the technological leap to effective mass production was realised and large quantities of penicillin were produced just in time for D-Day (6 June 1944). This drastically reduced the number of deaths from infections among wounded soldiers.

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Patent US2442141A

Andrew J. Moyer: Penicillin pioneer

The discovery of Penicillin

National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research: Peoria, IL: Development of penicillin