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The 10 Most Important Drugs

These breakthrough drugs made medicine modern.

2) Insulin: The First Hormone Therapy

Patients with advanced diabetes can't use the energy stored in their bodies. No matter how much they eat, they starve. Why? Their bodies stop making a hormone known as insulin, needed to convert sugar into energy.

Diabetes used to be known as "the sugar sickness." The only treatment was to give patients a near-starvation diet. They got only as much food as they could metabolize. They soon wasted away and died.

Canadian researchers Frederick Grant Banting, MD, and Charles Best, then a graduate student, first identified insulin in 1921. In 1922, a Canadian patient received the first successful treatment with insulin extracted from an animal. Demand for the new miracle treatment quickly outstripped supply, but pharmaceutical companies soon ramped up production.

"Insulin can completely change the lives of diabetes patients," Swann says. "If you look at what was available to people who suffered diabetes before insulin, those diets were just horrible. People with diabetes didn't have too long to live. Insulin is a great example of what can be accomplished in terms of collaboration between industry and academic researchers."

Insulin proved to be a hormone. As such, it's the grandfather of all other hormone-replacement therapies.

3) Smallpox Vaccine, Polio Vaccine

OK, so vaccines aren't really drugs. But the experts argue that preventive medicine has to be taken into account. And few preventive medicines have had the impact of the smallpox and polio vaccines.

Smallpox is by nearly universal acclaim foremost among the most dreadful scourges of humanity. Thanks to vaccination, which got its name from the Vaccinia cowpox virus used in the vaccine, smallpox is the first disease wiped from the face of the earth. (That cultures still exist in laboratories is another story).

And polio is on the verge of being the second scourge to be eliminated. Thanks to the vaccine, it's hard now to remember how frightening polio once was.

"Polio really made a major impact," Benet says. "In the 1940s and 1950s, you couldn't go swimming because parents were worried about polio. A huge number of people were affected."

Thanks to the success of these vaccines, modern vaccination succeeds in keeping many other nasty bugs at bay.

4) Ether: The Making of Modern Surgery

Ether has given way to more modern drugs. But its importance can't be overstated, the experts tell WebMD.

"The reason for that is it is the first drug used as an anesthetic," Stone says. "People used to have limbs literally sawn off while they were held down. Ether made it clear that it is possible to have an agent that can depress a person's brain functioning so major operations can be carried out. Since then there have been improved versions of anesthetics."

That cements ether's place among the most important drugs ever.

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