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Radical Regimes against Syphilis

Before it could be cured by chemotherapy, syphilis also known as the great pox was one of the world’s most feared and tragic diseases. Because no effective treatment existed, one third of all syphilis-infected adults suffered neurological deterioration and paralysis, horrible skin disfigurements, mental degeneration, insanity, circulatory disturbances, and eventually death. Pregnant females with syphilis commonly gave birth to fatally infected babies. Many remedies were practiced, most without positive effect. Two radical approaches, however, were marginally successful because of the acute heat sensitivity of the pathogenic bacterium.

It had long been observed that some people recovered from syphilis following episodes of high fever. Such observations provided the inspiration for the” hot box”. Patients were placed in a heated chamber until their body temperature was elevated well above normal. After 48 hours of such treatment, some patients actually recovered from their infections. Other died from the treatment.
Another “therapeutic” approach was to intentionally infect a syphilic person with malaria, a disease that periodic episodes of very high fever. Once the induced fever killed the pathogen of syphilis, the malaria was treated with quinine. Although this mode of treatment successfully cured some people of syphilis, many others had both syphilis and malaria for life.

Although the identities of many of the explorers who created these therapeutic innovations have been lost to time, syphilis attracted the attentions of one of the first scientific explorer’s t successfully created a selectively toxic chemotherapeutic agent against infectious disease. Paul Ehrlich, a German scientist, believed that the ability of certain dyes to selectively stain some cells but not others could be useful in finding ways to kill some cells but not others. In the 1890s he pioneered studies in selective toxicity, invented the term “chemotherapy” and established the first institute for developing antimicrobial drugs, searching for what he called a “magic bullet”. Ehrlich’s proposed magic bullet was any chemical that, when administered to an infected patient, would kill the pathogen without harming the patient’s cells. After a systematic examination of hundreds of chemicals which he numbered sequentially, compound 606 bore fruit-it was selectively toxic against T.pallidum. Salvarsan (the name given to compound 606), an arsenic-containing compound, because the standard treatment for syphilis and remained so for 40 years, saving thousands of lives. It was replaced as the preferred treatment by an even more effective drug, the antibiotic penicillin.
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