The earliest evidence of successful chemotherapy is from ancient Peru, where the Indians used bark from the cinchona tree to treat malaria. Other substances were used in ancient China, and we now know that many of the poultices used by primitive peoples contained antibacterial and antifungal substances. Modern chemotherapy has been dated to the work of Paul Ehrlich in Germany, who sought systematically to discover effective agents to treat trypanosomiasis and syphilis. He discovered p-rosaniline, which has antitrypanosomal effects, and arsphenamine, which is effective against syphilis. Ehrlich postulated that it would be possible to find chemicals that were selectively toxic for parasites but not toxic to humans. This idea has been called the "magic bullet" concept. It had little success until the 1930s, when Gerhard Domagk discovered the protective effects of prontosil, the forerunner of sulfonamide. Ironically, penicillin G was discovered fortuitously in 1929 by Fleming, who did not initially appreciate the magnitude of his discovery. In 1939 Florey and colleagues at Oxford University again isolated penicillin. In 1944 Waksman isolated streptomycin and subsequently found agents such as chloramphenicol, tetracyclines, and erythromycin in soil samples. By the 1960s, improvements in fermentation techniques and advances in medicinal chemistry permitted the synthesis of many new chemotherapeutic agents by molecular modification of existing compounds. Progress in the development of novel antibacterial agents has been great, but the development of effective, nontoxic antifungal and antiviral agents has been slow. Amphotericin B, isolated in the 1950s, remains an effective antifungal agent, although newer agents such as fluconazole are now widely used. Nucleoside analogs such as acyclovir have proved effective in the chemotherapy of selected viral infections.
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