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The Father of Non-Chemotherapy

Posted by Frederick Wasti
May 22 2012

Just for the heck of it, I just Googled "Father of Chemotherapy", and the name of Dr. Paul Ehrlich (whom I first mentioned here in my May 12th blog entry) came up repeatedly in the search results. However, my premise here is that Dr. Ehrlich might not be overly happy with that appellation, at least in the sense that the term "chemotherapy" is used nowadays.

In a generic sense, Dr. Ehrlich is indeed the "Father of Chemotherapy", in that he was the first medical researcher to synthesize a specific drug tailored to fight against a specific illness. In fact, it was Dr. Ehrlich who originally coined the term "chemotherapy"! In the following image, taken from a scientific article published by Dr. Ehrlich in 1908, the term "chemotherapy" can be seen being used for the first time:

["About Modern Chemotherapy. Paper presented at the Tenth German Dermatological Society Meeting"]

However, in current modern usage, chemotherapy generally refers to the use of chemical agents to combat diseases (such as cancer), but without connoting the use of drugs that target the ~specific~ cause of a disease. That is to say there is an important distinction today between many "chemo" drugs, which affect all or most of the cells in the body, and drugs that are employed for ~targeted~ therapy.

In cancer treatment, for example, many of the traditional anticancer "chemo" drugs do their work by interfering with the DNA of reproducing cells. This makes sense, of course, because cancer cells are among those that are reproducing most rapidly. However, such drugs also affect the DNA of other cells of the body, especially those that normally also rapidly divide as well. In other words, such chemotherapy drugs would probably not represent ideal chemical agents in the mind of Paul Ehrlich, who said, when referring to using chemicals to be used against pathogens,

"We must search for magic bullets. We must strike the parasites, and the parasites only, if possible, and to do this, we must learn to aim with the chemical substances."

In other words, Dr. Ehrlich would likely have preferred chemical agents that target ~specific~ pathogens or, in the case of cancer, that target just ~specific~ cells, rather than drugs that affect all or most of the cells in the body.

["About the Current State of Chemotherapy"...]

Now, in my own situation, in the clinical trial I am involved in, I am receiving three anticancer drugs:

1. Ofatumumab attacks lymphocytes, specifically a type of lymphocyte known as B-lymphocytes. The good news is that all of the leukemic cells in my body are B-lymphocytes. (The bad news is that, while most of my B-lymphocytes are leukemic, not all of them are.)

2. Alemtuzumab (which I will receive in Part B) also attacks lymphocytes, which therefore is also good news. (The bad news is that Alemtuzumab also affects T-lymphocytes, which are not involved in CLL.)

3. Methylprednisone does target white blood cells in general, which is basically good news. (The bad news is that Methylprednisone also has profound effects on most or even all of the cells of the body.)

So, if I were somehow able to ask for Paul Ehrlich's thoughts on my chemotherapy, I think he would be at least somewhat satisfied in the specificity of the drugs. Well, he might fuss about the Methylprednisone a bit due to it not being specific enough, but I might counter that his Compound 606 was not overly specific either.

My point here is, however, that Dr. Paul Ehrlich may be known as the "Father of Chemotherapy", yet, considering the general use of the term "chemotherapy" today, he probably would have preferred to be known as the "Father of Targeted Therapy" instead.

["On the Theory and Practice of Chemotherapy"...]

(Oh, incidentally, the second most common name that came up in my Google search for "Father of Chemotherapy" was that of Dr. Sidney Farber - yes, that's the "Farber" of "Dana-Farber Cancer Institute" - who is often described as the "Father of Modern Chemotherapy" for his pioneering work for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children in the 1940s. And, yes, I suspect I may end up writing about Dr. Farber in a future blog entry or two...)

Categories: Leukemia