Paul Ehrlich’s magic bullet

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Every now and then the entertainment industry grows weary of making movies about comic book characters and turns to the history of science to deliver gripping adventure stories – usually with less fights and explosions. .

In 1940, for example, filmmakers gave us Dr Ehrlich’s magic bullet, a biographical film starring the famous American actor Edward G Robinson as the title role of Dr. Paul Ehrlich.

The “magic bullet,” in the Hollywood narrative of the story, refers to the ultimately successful quest (spoiler alert) to find a cure for syphilis in the first decade of the 20th century. But in a larger context, the work won Ehrlich the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908 (which he shared with Russian researcher Ilya Mechnikov) and, according to Ehrlich’s biography of the award organization Nobel, made him “famous as one of the main founders of chemotherapy”.

The Nobel biography says that Ehrlich’s goal was “to find chemicals that have particular affinities for pathogenic organisms, to which they would go, such as antitoxins would go to toxins to which they are specifically related, and would be, like Ehrlich expressed it, “magic bullets” that would go directly to the organizations they were targeting. “

As for the Hollywood version of the story, a review from New York University’s Langone Health Academic Medical Center Litmed (Literature Arts Medicine Database) states, “Despite the slow pace and schmaltz of the 1940s, students find this film informative and inspiring.”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ehrlich was born on March 14, 1854 in Strehlen, Lower Silesia, present-day Poland. He attended gymnasium in Breslau, Poland, and universities in Poland, France and Germany. He obtained his doctorate in medicine in 1878 and was appointed assistant to a professor at the Berlin Medical Clinic.

Some of Ehrlich’s early work involved studying dyes that could be used to examine specific organs, tissues, and cells. He found that certain dyes had predictable reactions with various cells, and he also tested dyes for their therapeutic properties.

A 2003 article, “Paul Ehrlich’s Doctoral Thesis: A Milestone in the Study of Mast Cells,” published in the British Journal of Haematology, noted that it was while he was working on his doctoral thesis, “Contribution to the theory and practice of histological stains ”, at the University of Leipzig that Ehrlich first described a type of cell, which he called“ mast cells ”(Mastzelle).

The British Society for Immunology states that mast cells “are long-lived tissue resident cells with an important role in many inflammatory settings, including host defense against parasitic infections and allergic reactions.

“(They are) located at the boundaries between tissues and the external environment, for example, on the mucous surfaces of the intestine and lungs, in the skin and around blood vessels. Mast cells are key players in the inflammatory response because they can be activated to release a wide variety of inflammatory mediators, by many different antigens, including allergens, pathogens and physiological mediators.

The Nobel Prize-winning organization claims that in 1882 Ehrlich “published his method of staining the tubercle bacillus,” which drew him to the attention of Robert Koch, described by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the “founders of the science of bacteriology … best known for his discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the organism that causes tuberculosis”, for which he received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1905.

In 1890, Koch appointed Ehrlich as one of his assistants at the new Institute of Infectious Diseases “and Ehrlich then began the immunological studies with which his name will always be associated”, according to the Nobel Prize organization.

In 1896 Ehrlich became director of a newly established medical research institute at Steglitz in Berlin, where he continued his work on immunology.

He demonstrated that, as with chemical reactions, the toxin-antitoxin reaction is “accelerated by heat and retarded by cold”. He also established the need to establish a “fixed and invariable standard for measuring the antitoxin content of a serum”, which “formed the basis of any future standardization of sera”.

The work led Ehrlich to formulate his “side chain theory of immunity”.

In a separate article, the Nobel Prize organization wrote that Ehrlich’s side chain theory explains immunity and antibody formation.

“Although we now know that some of his ideas were incorrect, this theory allowed him to do important work and provided the foundation for later researchers in this area.”

Ehrlich believed that all cells had a variety of special receptors he called side chains, which “functioned as gatekeepers or locks for the cell.” Each had a unique structure and only substances corresponding to that structure were allowed to enter the cell.

Their main function was to absorb nutrients for the cell, but they also let in toxic substances. Ehrlich believed that the body defends itself against these toxins by producing an excess of side chains corresponding to the toxin, which flooded the body and neutralized free toxins by attaching themselves to them.

“The toxin has been eliminated and the remaining healthy cells protected.

“Ehrlich had discovered the key concept that the body produces substances, which we now call antibodies, to help destroy invaders.”

As for his “magic bullet,” Ehrlich and his team’s treatment for syphilis was made available in 1910 under the name Salvarsan. It was also known as 606 because the hit compound, whose main therapeutic ingredient was arsenic, was the 606th tested by researchers.

Ehrlich, who reportedly avoided exercise and smoked 20 cigars a day, suffered a heart attack and died on August 20, 1915.



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