10 wonder drugs that changed our lives forever

Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
An Rx for our health
Birth control blister packs.
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It's easy to take a lot of today's pharmaceutical offerings for granted. They're staples in our medicine cabinets or constantly in our face via television commercials. But it wasn't long ago that the pills and cures we don't think twice about today seemed as far away as a cure for Ebola or Zika.

The medical field can move incredibly fast, even if it may not seem like it when you're in the thick of things. Here's a look at 10 more-recent-than-you-might-think drugs that have forever altered the course of history and medicine.

— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
Posted 28 March 2016

Penicillin
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Discovered in 1928 and put to use to cure infections in 1942, this is arguably the most important drug discovery in the history of medicine. It began the era of antibiotics and ushered in advances in therapeutic medicine. In fact, there's a good chance you wouldn't be reading this if not for the drug, as it likely prevented an infection in yourself or one of your ancestors.

The drug, born from mold, fights infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. Unfortunately, extensive use of penicillin has built up resistance among some bacteria, leading researchers to search for new antibiotics. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic resistance is responsible for more than 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths each year.

Aspirin
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Another top-tier wonder drug, aspirin can do everything from relieving your headache to easing muscle pain to reduce your risk of death from a heart attack. First introduced in 1899 by the company now known as Bayer AG, it's one of the most commonly used drugs today.

In fiscal 2015, Bayer reported sales of $528 million on consumer aspirin products alone. The company made another $585 million on sales of Aspirin Cardio, a heart health–focused version.

Viagra
Viagra pill
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Pfizer launched its "little blue pill" in March 1998. Within the first year, the erectile dysfunction drug had racked up first-year sales of $788 million. It currently takes in more than $2 billion per year. More importantly, it has revitalized the sex lives of millions of people. It's not a lifesaver, admittedly, but its users would argue that it's certainly a quality-of-life saver.

Birth control pill
Birth control blister packs.
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Contraception was a taboo subject in the 1920s when Austrian scientist Ludwig Haberlandt first proposed using hormones as a way to prevent contraception. And it wasn't until 1960 that the first birth control pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Beyond its obvious purpose, the pill can also ease cramps and PMS symptoms and can actually make your skin clearer.

Today an estimated 17.5 percent of women between 15 and 44 use the birth control pill in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute. And researchers are working to create a version that works on men. Scientists at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy say they're closer than ever to coming up with a pill that temporarily sterilizes men, but there's no timeline yet for submission to the FDA or for clinical trials.

Lipitor
Lipitor tablets
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While Lipitor is the most widely known name, statins as a whole are a drug group that have had a significant effect in reducing heart disease. The medication decreases bad cholesterol (which is a disease risk) while also decreasing the liver's production of cholesterol.

However, the drug and other statins can have side effects, including muscle pain and damage. In some cases it can also cause your liver to increase the production of enzymes that help you digest food and medications.

Developed in 1985 by Pfizer, Lipitor went on to become the best-selling drug of all time, with more than $125 billion in sales over just shy of 15 years.

Insulin
Insulin injection pens
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Discovered in 1921, insulin dramatically changed — and often saved — the lives of people with diabetes. Prior to its discovery, patients suffering from the disease were put on near-starvation diets so their bodies were able to process the sugars they needed. But the discovery that the insulin hormone would help convert sugar into energy offered an alternative.

And it ultimately opened the door for other forms of hormone replacement. As of 2012, 29 million people in the United States— some 9.3 percent — had diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the numbers are rising, making insulin more important than ever.

Thorazine
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Until the 1950s, people suffering from psychiatric disorders generally had two options: Take lithium or continue suffering. The introduction of chlorpromazine, better known as Thorazine, revolutionized the field and led the way for other psychiatric meds, especially those focusing on anxiety and depression. It also let people suffering from mental ailments — such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — continue to function in society rather than be thrown into mental institutions.

Today it is on the World Health Organization's Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system.

HN-2/Mechlorethamine
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Originally a chemical warfare agent, researchers in the 1940s realized that mechlorethamine had other potential uses. One of its compounds, HN-2, is useful in treating certain kinds of cancer. That's because it works by binding to DNA, cross-linking to strands and preventing cell duplication.

Today it's used as a chemotherapy drug to fight issues such as lung disease, Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

AZT
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The FDA's 1987 approval of zidovudine, widely known as AZT, was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It's not a cure, of course, but it was the first drug to block the enzymes HIV uses to target and infect cells. When later used in conjunction with other drugs, AZT was useful in helping patients from succumbing to full-blown AIDS.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the estimated lifetime cost of treating HIV is $379,000.

Ritalin
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Life's not easy for kids (or adults) with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But Ritalin has made it a little less difficult to focus. While medical use of the drug started in the 1960s, it wasn't until the 1990s that it really came to the forefront.

It's a central nervous system stimulant that treats both ADHD and narcolepsy, but in recent years it's been more in the spotlight because of abuse fears — as college students take it to focus before tests, and eSports athletes use it as a performance-enhancing drug (to sharpen their game-playing skills).

The medication is not supposed to be used as a brain-memory enhancing drug. Recent research published in the "Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience" shows that while Ritalin can boost mental performance in the short term, it can adversely impact the brain's plasticity, making it hard to plan ahead and be flexible in behavior.

This story was updated to reflect that AZT was the first drug to block the enzymes HIV uses to target and infect cells and was not a protease inhibitor.

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