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From Valeriana officinalis to cancer therapy: the success of a bio-sourced compound

The Oxford dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”. During human history, the combination of serendipity and advances in biochemistry fostered the discovery of medicines from bio-sourced materials.

For example, the discovery by Pasteur of the chicken cholera vaccine had a strong element of chance (Smith, 2012). Due to a period of holidays, his assistant neglected to prepare a fresh batch of bacteria. When returning to work after a few weeks, the solution was no longer infectious, indicating that the inoculum had been ruined. The perspicacity of Pasteur then triggered an experiment previously described by Jenner with the smallpox vaccine. Pasteur discovered that chickens previously injected with the old batch of bacteria were protected from cholera. Another famous example of chance discovery is penicillin. In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered that the Penicillium fungus having contaminated his Petri dishes produced a powerful antibiotic (Bentley, 2005). In fact, the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and Indians of Central America already used molds and fermented materials for the treatment of infected wounds (Forrest, 1982). However, they did not establish a biological connection between the antibacterial properties of mold and the treatment of diseases. In 1940, Ernst Chain and Edward Penley Abraham developed a freezedrying protocol to concentrate penicillin. A further purification step based on absorption on activated charcoal was further provided by Christian De Duve (Ligon, 2004). These successive developments were vital early steps, in what would become one of the most popular antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, leading ultimately to the emergence of GlaxoSmithKline.