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One hundred years ago...

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Javier Carbone, MD, PhD
Complutense University
Madrid, Spain

In 1917, one hundred years ago, Emil von Behring, the recipient of the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, died at Marburg, Germany. Behring studied under Robert Koch at Koch's Institute in Berlin. During the first 20 years of Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine, there was a dominance in the area of infections and immunity. In 1890, Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato published their discovery that increasing doses of sterilized cultures of diphtheria or of tetanus bacilli caused animals to produce substances in their blood that could neutralize the toxins which these bacilli produced (antitoxins). They also showed that the antitoxins produced by one animal could passively immunize another animal, and that they could cure animals showing symptoms of diphtheria. By 1895, the antitoxin was successfully administered by injection to treat diphtheria patients. In 1901, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring "for his work on serum therapy, especially its application against diphtheria, by which he has opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths." Immediately after this discovery, there was a widespread use of specific serum therapy for treatment of infectious diseases. Diphtheria antitoxin was one of the first biological therapeutics to emerge. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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