As is the case with many modern chemotherapies, arsenic is well known for both its ability to fight disease and cause serious side effects and death. The heavy metal was used for thousands of years to treat infections around the skin, although it is perhaps best-known as the “Poison of Kings” due to its long and storied use in assassinations. Arsenic has been used in several medicinal tonics as well, most famously Fowler’s solution, which was used to treat high blood pressure, gastric ulcers, asthma, eczema, tuberculosis, and both skin and breast cancers. While these tonics were somewhat helpful, they had significant side effects and fell out of use in the mid-1900s.
In the early 1900s, a physician, Dr. Paul Ehrlich found that atoxyl, a derivative of arsenic, was highly effective in the treatment of trypanosomiasis, a common and often fatal chronic infection of the time. Based on this, he searched for a similar derivative of arsenic to treat syphilis, and in so doing created the concept (and name) of chemotherapy. He created Salvarsan, which was the first effective treatment of syphilis; it quickly became the most prescribed drug in the world.
Unfortunately, these medications still had significant side effects, with atoxyl leading to blindness in many of those treated, and Salvarsan causing rashes, liver damage, and even death. Both were replaced by slightly safer arsenic compounds which remained the basis of treatments for these diseases for many years. In the 1940s, with the discovery of penicillin, the arsenic derivatives went largely out of favor in Western medicine.
However, research continued on their potential uses in China, and in the 1970s, arsenic trioxide was shown to be effective in the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia, a blood cancer. Over the next 30 years, it has become the prefered second line treatment for this deadly leukemia.
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