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The 10 Most Important Drugs

These breakthrough drugs made medicine modern.
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7) Salvarsan -- The Cure for Lust

Chances are, Salvarsan didn't make your list of most important drugs. But historians Swann and Greenberg say it belongs in the club.

Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, invented in 1909. It's also known as Ehrlich 606 because it was the 606th compound tested by the legendary German scientist Paul Ehrlich and colleague Sahachiro Hata as a treatment for syphilis. It worked because the arsenic-based compound is a bit more poisonous to syphilis bacteria than it is to humans.

The treatment made people dreadfully ill. But it didn't kill them, which syphilis would eventually do. Some 20 to 40 treatments, over the course of a year, were needed to cure the disease.

"Salvarsan was a specific treatment for a specific disease. This was the promise that lay before the rest of the century," Greenberg says. "You would be hard pressed to leave it off the list."

More importantly, Salvarsan was the first chemotherapy. Most modern cancer drugs work in much the same way. They are poisonous, hard-to-take drugs dosed to kill a disease before they kill the patient.

With Salvarsan, Ehrlich began another modern tradition: the idea that drugmakers have moral responsibilities.

"People threw rocks at his window," Greenberg says. "They said syphilis was God's punishment for fornicators and that Ehrlich was interfering."

8) Psychiatric Medications -- Calming the Troubled Mind

The insane asylums of yesteryear were built to contain people suffering from the severe psychiatric diseases known as psychoses. These drastic diseases brought down upon patients equally drastic "treatments."

The advent of modern psychiatric drugs in the 1950s changed everything. Benet nominates the low-potency antipsychotic drug Thorazine for the top 10 list. Stone prefers Haldol, the first high-potency antipsychotic.

"[Thorazine] allowed us not to have crazy people," Benet says. "It was the first drug for modern psychopharmacology. The only effective one before that was lithium -- but [Thorazine] let you treat people so they were ambulatory instead of putting them into insane asylums."

"[Haldol] was one of the first drugs to bring schizophrenia under control," Stone says. "It acts specifically on the parts of the brain affected in schizophrenia without just depressing the patient and being a sedative."

Greenberg agrees that psychiatric drugs belong in the top 10.

"The social things about the psychiatric drugs have all sorts of modern resonance," he notes. "These drugs led directly to today's deinstitutionalization of schizophrenics and people with mood disorders."

The modern grandchildren of Thorazine and Haldol are the modern "atypical" antipsychotics. These drugs reduce many of the side effects that remain a significant problem for psychiatric patients.

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