Illustration of Chemotherapy

1910 Chemotherapy

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Paul Ehrlich pharmacology Illustration of Chemotherapy


Paul Ehrlich’s cousin, Karl Weigert, was the first person to stain bacteria with synthetic textile dyes and to introduce aniline pigments for medical studies and diagnostics. Paul Ehrlich studied the results of injecting dyes into living animals and dreamed of synthesizing a drug that would kill all pathogens that cause disease. He began to study the parasites that cause sleeping sickness but switched the spirochaetes bacteria responsible for syphilis, hoping for a drug that would kill the pathogen without harming the person. After synthesizing and testing over six hundred arsenic compounds for curing syphilis, Ehrlich chose a drug that he called arsphenamine, later called salvarsan. Salvarsan was highly effective; unfortunately, several people died of it. It was replaced in 1912 by neosalvarsan, then, in the 1940s, by penicillin, for the treatment of syphilis.

Magic bullets

The beginning of chemotherapy to treat cancer was the accidental exposure to mustard gas of several hundred people in Bari, Italy, during World War II. Ehlich’s dream of a magic bullet was replaced by permission to inject any toxic compound to kill a cancer if it would at least not kill the patient outright. People who are sure that their disease, if untreated, would kill them cling to the hope that the treatment for the disease will not.

Fierce hope

We are not taught how to die or how to watch a loved one do it. Faced with the unacceptable, fierce hope must be our resolve; fierce trust must be our character; and even our love must be fierce.

Paul Ehlich’s hypothetical magic bullet against a disease would combine a toxin with a chemical to select the desired pathogen and nothing else. Today, monoclonal antibodies come the closest to being able to select a specific antigen.

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