Salvarsan is an arsenic based drug introduced by
Paul Ehrlich in 1910 to treat syphilis, a difuse sexually transmitted
disease. His systematic research of specific drugs able to cure particular
disease was signing the initial steps of targeted chemotherapy.
A team constituted by Ehrlich (medical doctor), Alfred Bertheim (chemist) and Sahachiro Hata (bacteriologist), studied syphilis, an endemic disease that was incurable, and often deadly. At that time, scientists had identified a parasitic bacterium known as Treponema pallidum as the triggering cause of syphilis. The team was convinced that they could be able to identify a magic bullet capable of killing the syphilis-causing bacterium without harming its human host.
Starting from known organic arsenic compounds the team synthetized and evaluated hundreds of related organoarsenic compounds. Eachcompound was tested for biological activity, toxicity, and distribution in rabbits infected with the syphilis-causing bacteria. Compound number 606 (Salvarsan) proved to be the best candidate with a single dose curing the rabbits.
Salvarsan entered rapidly in clinical trials and proved extremelyeffective, particularly when compared with the conventional therapy of mercury salts. Salvarsan was manufactured by Hoechst, a German chemical company and rapidly became the most widely prescribed drug in the world. This is the first blockbuster drug and remained the most effective drug for syphilis till 1940s, when penicillin became available.
The drug was
half successful with respect to the promises, in fact was the proof that
synthetic drugs could be produced to treat disease, but was definitely not the
magic bullet that Ehrlich dreamed about. Patients with an advanced stage of
syphilis failed to respond to the drug; physicians found the drug difficult to
handle and administer. Salvarsan dosage form was a powder that doctors had to
dissolve in several hundred milliliters of sterilized water and injected
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