A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Ehrlich finds cure for syphilis

Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was born in East Prussia (now Poland), the son of a lottery-office keeper. He went to the University of Leipzig to pursue a career in medicine. By the time he graduated in 1878, he was already involved in researching the body's reaction to chemicals. He was fascinated by the fact that certain cells seemed to have an affinity for certain chemicals. At the time he was a student, the German dye industry was thriving, and new aniline dyes were available for tissue staining. He found that different cells held different dyes. He used this research to develop effective staining techniques for studying bacterial and other tissues.

He continued to do research instead of practice clinical medicine, though appointed head physician of Charité Hospital in Berlin. He rose rapidly in Germany's scientific world, taking posts at ever more prestigious research centers. He studied the disease diphtheria, and he identified antitoxins and produced them for therapeutic use. He eventually surprised colleagues by leaving the potentially profitable field of serology (developing antitoxins and vaccines that stimulate the body to fight disease) and pursuing the new field of chemotherapy (using chemicals not created in the body to attack particular diseases), though still focusing on his observation that certain cells and chemicals are particularly sensitive to one another.

Ehrlich was looking for a cure or treatment for "sleeping sickness," a disease caused by a microbe. He found that a chemical called Atoxyl worked well but was a fairly strong arsenic compound, and arsenic was poisonous. Ehrlich began an exhaustive search for an arsenic compound that would be a "magic bullet:" kill the microbe but not the person with the disease. In 1909, after testing over 900 different compounds on mice, Ehrlich's new colleague Sahachiro Hata went back to #606. It didn't do much for the sleeping sickness microbe, but it seemed to kill another (recently discovered) microbe, the one which causes syphilis. At that time, syphilis was a disabling and prevalent -- though little talked about -- disease. Ehrlich and Hata tested 606 over and over on mice, guinea pigs, and then rabbits with syphilis. They achieved complete cures within three weeks, with no dead animals. In 1910 the drug was released, called Salvarsan, or sometimes just 606. It was an almost immediate success and was sold all over the world. It spurred Germany to become a leader in chemical and drug production. And it made syphilis a curable disease.

Salvarsan also inspired other researchers, such as Alexander Fleming. Fleming was one of the first and few in England to administer Salvarsan in its most effective form -- intravenously. That was then a new and difficult technique for giving drugs. But Salvarsan's success encouraged Fleming in his search for drugs to treat and cure bacterial disease. Prominent researchers around him were saying that vaccination was the only way to go. Fleming's work eventually resulted in the development of pencillin, one of the single most effective drugs of the century.

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