Developer of Cure for Syphilis; Immunologist
Ehrlich was born on March 14, 1854, in Strehlen, Prussia (now Strzelin, Poland). As a young student, he had trouble writing and memorizing, and developed a habit of illustrating his ideas with diagrams instead of words.
His interest in chemistry came early. At age eight he had cough drops made to his own recipe by the town pharmacist. But he was considered a poor student and he had to change medical schools three times before finally graduating in 1878 from the University of Leipzig.
Ehrlich was fascinated with color and his early experiments, begun while a student, were on the effects of various dyes on living tissues. By 1883 he had made significant progress in cell staining, including a technique for identifying tuberculosis bacteria that he showed to ROBERT KOCH, the German bacteriologist who first isolated the tuberculosis bacteria in 1882.
As he continued his investigation, Ehrlich noted that some dyes seem to be quite selective in their behavior, targeting diseasecausing bacteria. This prompted his idea that the right mixture of chemicals could be a “magic bullet” to destroy the invaders and make the patient immune to future attacks by that particular disease. The problem, then, was to identify chemicals that would behave so specifically as to attack the bacteria only and not damage human cells and their ability to produce antitoxins (now called antibodies). His muchdebated hypotheses were the beginning of a century of research in the field of immunology.
In 1890 Ehrlich helped Emil Behring devise an antitoxin serum effective against diphtheria. Later experiments showed that some diseases (particularly those caused by protozoa) do not respond to antitoxins, and he began to seek substances that kill parasites without harming the body.
Tests in 1910 indicated that an arseniccontaining substance (later dubbed Salvarsan), which Ehrlich had synthesized, was highly effective against syphilis and several other diseases. Ehrlich collaborated with a chemical manufacturer to distribute 65,000 samples of Salvarsan to physicians around the globe. A few harmful side effects occurred, but the drug was soon widely used to treat syphilis.
In addition to numerous awards and honorary degrees, Ehrlich received the 1908 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (shared with ÉLIE METCHNIKOFF, who conducted independent work in immunology) in recognition of his immunological research. He died in Hamburg, Germany; on August 20, 1915.
Paul Ehrlich’s Legacy
Ehrlich’s various achievements created the foundations for subsequent research into infectious diseases, the immune response, and chemotherapy.
Ehrlich’s staining innovations aided in the development of the understanding, diagnosis, and early treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid. The ability to identify the agents of disease by applying dyes to tissues and cells allowed scientists to isolate and study the causes of diseases much more readily. It also illustrated where in the body specific agents congregate.
With his search for synthesized drug treatments, Ehrlich founded chemotherapy. Salvarsan was the first chemotherapeutic drug, and Neosalvarsan, a more stable and less toxic substance, soon followed. The success of these two drugs in relieving the suffering caused by syphilis launched a flurry of attempts to synthesize parasitekilling chemical compounds.
The distribution of free samples of Ehrlich’s Salvarsan foreshadowed the modern collaboration between researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. The distribution was unprecedented at the time. It is commonplace now: researchers develop new drugs for pharmaceutical companies, which finance the manufacture of the product. Free samples are commonly sent to physicians so they can introduce the product to the public and gain support for its eventual paid use.
Paul Ehrlich – 1854-1915