With their introduction during the first half of the 20th century, antibiotics ushered in a new era for humankind – saving lives on a massive scale. From earaches to tuberculosis, common bacterial infections that had once proved deadly could finally be cured.
One of the key players in this revolution was Erika Böhni, a farmer’s daughter from a small town in Switzerland. The young microbiologist and chemist joined Roche in 1951 at a time when the company was just starting to earn a reputation in the field of antibacterial research. The 29-year-old ETH graduate was keenly interested in the subject and, once she was convinced of something, she fought for it passionately, spiritedly. . .even stubbornly.
Erika’s razor-sharp scientific mind and self-discipline were legendary and, by the 1960s, she’d come up with a solution no one could believe: the combination of two active ingredients, sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim. In her words: “People thought, ‘Böhni’s gone crazy.’ Until other bacteriologists confirmed the fact. It was a fantastic, exciting time.”
The combination was shown to specifically block two steps in the bacterial synthesis of folic acid to halt bacterial growth. A medicine based on her wild idea was launched in 1969 and has since been used almost two billion times – generic, lower-cost versions included – providing a cure or relief from infections of the respiratory, urinary, genital and gastrointestinal tracts as well as the kidneys. Even today, it is still a highly effective treatment for one of the most common opportunistic infections in AIDS patients.
Erika knew she was more than her scientific genius. She was also very business-savvy and, in 1971, joined the Board of Directors as the third woman ever to reach this position. But she was never very far from the lab. By the end of her career, four of the medicines she worked on had made it onto the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. Never one to be idle, when she retired from Roche in 1984, Erika revealed yet another secret set of skills by becoming an author of books for children and young adults.
Throughout Erika’s career, antibiotics enjoyed global success, and it seemed like nothing could stop them. Until nature began to strike back.
Bacteria evolve in response to antibiotics and, in doing so, slowly chip away at the efficacy of treatments. It’s an issue for which we see only the tip of the iceberg in high-income countries, but that already disproportionately impacts low- and middle-income countries, where public health infrastructure is less robust. Today, with formerly fatal infections having been kept under control for nearly 100 years, multiresistant pathogens are becoming ubiquitous.
Gone are the days when we could rely on a bold, “crazy” individual like Erika Böhni to come up with a life-saving idea. The only way to face the global epidemic is with a completely new class of antibiotics with no known resistance. And the only way to get there is with a cross-discipline, global industry alliance working across partners to combat the mechanisms behind antimicrobial resistance.