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90 years of penicillin – what does accidental discovery mean for R&D today?

Posted on November 14th, 2018 by in Pharma R&D

penicillin new

90 years ago, an accidental discovery was made which altered medicine forever. While sorting through petri dishes in his laboratory, Alexander Fleming came across a substance we now know as penicillin, which prevented mold growing on the dish. Luck would again play a role when it came to mass production of the miracle medicine – a variation of penicillin with a much more usable yield was serendipitously uncovered by laboratory assistant, Mary Hunt. Discovered by chance and mass produced  to change the face of medicine, penicillin became the ‘wonder drug’ of World War Two, reducing the death rate from bacterial pneumonia to under one per cent.

Yet penicillin is far from the only accidental discovery in the history of science. In medicine alone, the discoveries of insulin, saccharin and Viagra can all be traced back to moments of chance. While many of these fortuitous discoveries have come about through scientists attempting to solve a different problem, we can only wonder what insights, developments or potential new medications might lie buried in existing scientific data. With data so widespread today – i.e., stored in siloes on company systems, hidden in scientists’ electronic laboratory notebooks, and even sitting in boxes waiting to be digitized – there surely are countless Pandora’s boxes of innovation waiting to have their contents revealed to advance the face of healthcare.

There has never been a better time to consider what valuable insights might be waiting to be discovered. For example, scientists are facing more complex challenges than ever, including the growing threat from antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance almost a century after penicillin was first discovered. In 2016, almost half a million people globally developed multi-drug resistant TB.

Drug resistance has the potential to wreak havoc on public health. Given the new avenues being explored, the wealth of data available to researchers will be vital to efforts to overcome the threat of resistance. The key is fully unlocking and analyzing that data. It’s also important to ensure researchers are collating and normalizing data from a range of sources to make accurate comparisons—and ensure they don’t miss vital insights. As is often the case, we can have all the data, but sometimes researchers also need a little dose of luck to make the next great scientific discovery.








Sr. Manager, Pharma and Biotech Segment

Sr. Manager, Pharma and Biotech Segment

As a professional with over 14 years of experience in strategy development and partnership management across a variety of industries, Nicki’s latest role as a Senior Manager, Segment Marketing at Elsevier applies her skills to the area of drug discovery and development in the Pharma and Biotech industry.  In this capacity she is focused on understanding biopharmaceutical R&D challenges and turning them into opportunity to further Elsevier’s ability to serve industry executives and the professionals who innovate in the drug discovery and development space.  Prior to joining Elsevier, Nicki held senior alliance and strategy roles in the Legal, Tax & Accounting, Life Sciences and Cyber Security industries.

Nicki resides in New York City and holds a BA in English Literature and Mandarin Chinese from Carleton College in Northfield, MN.


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