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The 10 Most Important Drugs

These breakthrough drugs made medicine modern.
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1) Penicillin: First on All Lists continued...

No other drug changed the world quite like this.

"If you were to ask what is the most important drug -- just one -- I'd say penicillin," Greenberg says.

Benet says the drug made a stark difference: "Before penicillin, if you had a serious infection, you died."

Ironically, careless use of penicillin -- and many of the drugs that came after it -- allows germs to develop resistance. It's a race - and the bugs are catching up.

"We are at a crossroads," Greenberg warns. "We keep on coming up with newer and hotter antibiotics, and yet we already wore out the basic ones. So you get into the question of whether the pharmacology people will be able to keep up with the change in the bugs they are fighting. That is going to be really the cutting edge of the future."

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.

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