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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 10:12 GMT
The British Medical Journal is launching a competition to decided the greatest medical breakthrough.

Present-day medical experts are championing discoveries from the last 166 years.

Antibiotics are championed by Robert Bud, principal curator of medicine at the Science Museum, London.

The most famous antibiotic is penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming at St Mary's Medical School in London in 1929.

Penicillin was used to protect soldiers from sexually transmitted diseases

But further work was needed by UK and US researchers. Then the outbreak of WWII created a great need for the medication.

Penicillin was widely used to protect soldiers from infected wounds, and from the effects of sexually transmitted diseases - something that was crucial in the post-war period when a syphilis epidemic threatened parts of Europe.

Antibiotics then underpinned the use of health services, such as the NHS, as patients could be quickly treated for their illnesses.

Surgeons were also more able to carry out complex operations because patients were protected from infection.

The use of antibiotics also meant people who fell ill could be treated and not - as had been the case previously - been the subject of disdain for falling ill.

Since the early 1960s, few new families of antibiotics have been developed. However, the problem of drug-resistant bacterial diseases is increasing - largely through over use of the drugs.

Proposing them as the greatest medical milestone, Dr Budd said: "Antibiotics can truly be considered the epitome of the 20th century 'wonder drugs'."

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