Medical Marvels – the Bayer facts (see what I did there)

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First a little history…

The story of Aspirin is an old one. I know you’re probably tired of

giving credit to the ancient Greeks for every little thing just

because they wrote everything down, but as early as 5th century B.C.

good folks like Hippocrates, in their flowing togas were describing

miracle pain relieving powders made from ground willow bark. Now let’s

fast-forward to the 18th century where scientist representing three

corners of the globe were playing around with salicin, as if it were

an Olympic sport. First a German named Johann Andreas Buchner

identified the compound salicin as the active ingredient to that wacky

Willow powder I mentioned earlier. Back in France, Henri Leroux was

figuring out ways to produce larger, biggie-sized quantities of the

compound. The cool kids (scientists) figured out along the way that

salicin gets it’s medicinal potency from being converted into

salicylic acid (its metabolite) by the body. Though this form can also

be found in plants a crafty Italian by the name of Raffaele Piria

would later figure out a way to convert salicin to salicylic acid in

his lab.

Turning down the volume….

I won’t bore you in this article with feedback mechanisms (I’ll bore

you in another article). Let’s just say that for many of the chemical

signals that our cells produce there is usually a mechanism to

interfere, inhibit, or amplify that signal. In the case of pain our

body really wants to get that message across loud and clear. There is

a family of cellular messengers called prostaglandins that, among other

things, switches our neurons on to pain. The enzyme cyclooxygenase

(COX-2) increases the production of these pain happy molecules during

inflammation. Salicylic acid blocks the expression of COX-2 (as in

it’s gene expression into protein). It’s kind of like throwing water

over the logs so the fire never gets a chance to start.

The trouble with Sally is…

Despite its magical pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties,

salicylic acid could be pretty harsh on the stomach lining. In fact, a

lot of people suffered from intestinal bleeding after taking the

powder (Now that’s harsh). Along comes this hot-shot chemist out of

Germany, Felix Hoffman who decides that it’s the “acid” portion of

salicylic acid that’s the problem. After performing a little

biochemical black magic (Adding an acetyl group like acetyl chloride

to the compound to take the edge off a little) Felix produces a more

user friendly compound that his employer Friederick Bayer & Co would

later market as “the wonder drug.” When the biochemical nerd dust

settled we were left with Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), or Aspirin.

Stay curious, stay classy, and never stop learning my friends 🙂

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