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The treatment creates holes in a bacteria cell wall, which enlarge as the cell grows, eventually killing the organism, it was found. It is the growth of these holes that is key to penicillin’s success, researchers said.

The international team, led by University of Sheffield scientists, hope to exploit this knowledge to create new drugs to combat superbugs.

Professor Simon Foster said: “Our findings get to the heart of understanding how existing antibiotics work and give us new avenues for further treatment developments.”

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 at St Mary’s Hospital, London. It has saved about 200 million lives.

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