Vancomycin was initially isolated by E.C. Kornfeld (operating at Eli Lilly) from a sample of soil acquired from the heart of the jungles in Borneo by a missionary. The organism that created it was in time named Streptomyces orientalis. To begin with the indication for vancomycin was for the treatment of penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
At first the compound was labelled compound 05865, but in time was given the generic name, vancomycin derived from the word "vanquished". One benefit that was immediately evident was that staphylococci did not develop significant resistance despite serial passage in culture media containing vancomycin. The speedy development of penicillin-resistance by staphylococci led to the compound being fast-tracked for approval by the FDA in 1958. Eli Lilly first marketed vancomycin hydrochloride under the trade name Vancocin.
Vancomycin did not become first line treatment for Staphylococcus aureus for a number of reasons:
- The medicine must be given intravenously, as it is not absorbed orally.
- ß-lactamase-resistant semi-synthetic penicillins such as methicillin (and its successors, nafcillin and cloxacillin) were subsequently developed.
- Early trials using early impure forms of vancomycin ("Mississippi mud") were found to be toxic to the ears and to the kidneys. These results led to vancomycin being relegated to the position of a drug of last resort.
In 2004, Eli Lilly licensed Vancocin to ViroPharma in the U.S., Flynn Pharma in the UK and Aspen Pharmacare in Australia. The patent ran out in the early 1980s and generic versions of the drug became available under a variety of trade names.