Friday, May 2, 2014

An interesting bit of medicinal chemistry/process chemistry history

Thanks to Anonymous at In the Pipeline, I learned a little bit about salvarsan: 
In 1909 the anti-syphilis Compound 606 emerged from the laboratory of Paul Ehrlich at the Hoechst Dye Works, the result of several years of investigation into the anti-spirochete activity of organoarsenic compounds. After much technology development and a clinical trial, reports of the drug's efficacy in treating syphilis became headline news in the world press. The long-wished-for cure to this dreaded disease was now at hand. 
The drug was called salvarsan, and those suffering from syphilis tried every possible trick to secure ampoules of this miracle drug. Pilfering by factory workers was such a problem that the plant manager had no alternative but to personally count each vial at the end of the day and lock them in his steel safe until they could be distributed by doctors to the sick, many of whom impatiently waited at the plant gates for their chance to get this wonder drug. Letters from kings, popes, the rich and the powerful begged the company for access to this new drug on behalf of this or that patient. 
Within a couple of years, reports appeared claiming that salvarsan was not really that effective, that it was far more poisonous than had been stated, and the price of 10 marks per ampoule was much too high. In 1912 a Swiss professor criticized the price of salvarsan. He had totaled up the costs for a kilo of arsenious acid and a kilo of benzene as if the two substances were simply thrown together and salvarsan had been distilled from a Hoechst retort. No mention was made of R&D costs, the tricky nature of salvarsan's industrial-scale preparation or manufacturing costs. 
Thus began the long-running love-hate relationship between the general public and the pharmaceutical industry which continues to this day.
Truer words have not been spoken. Fascinating stuff.  

1 comment:

  1. I left out part of the story because interpretations of history are never really simple. It is claimed that despite winning the Nobel Prize, Ehrlich committed suicide, in part, because of his disillusionment arising from the harsh criticism that was subsequently heaped upon his wonder drug.

    Fortunately or unfortunately most drug inventors live in obscurity and are never recognized for their great inventions or criticized for them either when things go south.