Aspirin has been an essential medication for over 120 years. Along the way, aspirin has influenced health, medical research, and even international copyright law, making it a little drug with a big story.
It All Begins with Salicin
Our ancient ancestors in Europe, North America, and Asia knew that brewing tea from willow bark could ease pain and reduce fevers. Records from ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Sumer refer to the use of willow bark as medicine, and salicylic acid is named after salix alba, the white willow. The active compound salicin was first isolated and named by German chemist Johann Andreas Buchner in 1828, and later Italian chemist Raffaele Pria was able to convert salicin into salicylic acid.
In 1853, Alsatian chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt was the first to treat sodium salicylate with acetyl chloride, and produce acetylsalicylic acid, the compound that would become aspirin.
Gerhardt’s formula was weak and unstable, and it remained largely forgotten for nearly 50 years.
The Bayer Corp
Bayer was founded as a dyestuffs factory in western Germany in 1863. It may seem counterintuitive, but many of today’s pharmaceutical giants had their origins in dyes and fragrances, because they employed so many chemists. In 1897, scientists at Bayer were searching for a less-irritating form of salicin-based medications, and took up Gerhardt’s acetylsalicylic acid. By the end of that year, they had perfected a formula for a drug they named Aspirin, and by 1899, it was being sold all over the world.
What is Aspirin?
In today’s terms, aspirin is an NSAID – a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. It reduces pain, fever, and inflammation, although the mechanism of its action wasn’t discovered until 1971, a staggering 70 years after it was widely in use as a medication.
Aspirin suppresses the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes, by deactivating the enzyme that creates them. Interestingly, aspirin converts the pro-inflammatory activity of these enzymes into anti-inflammatory mediators. Aspirin irreversibly blocks the creation of these compounds, unlike other NSAIDs that only temporarily inhibit them.
What’s in a Name?
Aspirin is one of the earliest products to have a “genericized” name, and one of the most famous. Both Aspirin and Heroin were originally trademarked Bayer product names, but their earliest use predates modern copyright law. By 1918, when Bayer sought to defend its trademark in US court, the court ruled against the company because it had allowed competitors to use the name “aspirin” for their products in the preceding years. It is also possible that, during 1918 and 1921, when these US copyright cases were being decided, there was general sentiment against Germany and Bayer that influenced these decisions. Regardless, in most countries around the world, Bayer holds the trademark for “Aspirin,” while “aspirin” remains a generic term.
Research and Bias
Interestingly, aspirin was once again a subject of controversy in the 1990s, but not for the reasons you would think. In 1989, a massive landmark study was published, in which it was determined that low-dose daily aspirin caused a 44% reduction in the risk of myocardial infarction. It was an incredible study, and caused physicians around the world to begin prescribing low-dose aspirin to a wide range of patients at risk for heart attack and disease. A few years later, and it became clear that aspirin does not work the same in every body.
In fact, when people went back to the original study, and realize that, of the over 22,000 participants, none of them were women, it sparked a backlash. Scientists and researchers need to stop including only men as their test subjects, and then extrapolating the results out to the entire population. In fact, in the early 2000s it was proven that aspirin does not have any preventive heart health benefits for women.
Aspirin is on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, a list of medicines that are the most effective and safe, to meet the most critical needs of emerging health systems. Globally, over 40,000 tons of aspirin are produced every year, and about 50 million Americans take it regularly as preventive medicine. It’s quite possibly the most popular medicine in the modern world, despite its ancient origins.
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