You might have seen an interesting story in the news earlier this week - WWI antiseptic could fight common cold - and tackle superbugs.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking! We’ve heard it all before - promises of medical breakthroughs that amount to nothing. We see these articles in the news constantly – taunting the ill and giving hope to those who have none – and then they quietly disappear into the nether.
This one was a bit different though. The article started:
“A century-old antiseptic made from coal tar and used to treat wounds and sleeping sickness in World War I Australian soldiers has been found to help the body fight off viral infections, including the common cold.”
What I found exciting about this report was that the drug (Acriflavine) was used during World War I – on HUMANS – and found to be effective for the treatment of wounds, bladder infections, gonorrhoea and sleeping sickness. It was used successfully until being largely replaced by penicillin 70 years ago. So we already know from decades of human use that it is safe and effective.
The drug has also been investigated in human cell cultures where it was discovered that it binds to the DNA of patients to activate the immune system when a viral infection was taking place. It was also tested in human lung tissue to investigate its effect on a common cold virus. It was found that “cells that had been treated with Acriflavine three days prior to the infection had a faster immune response to the virus, and the virus spread more slowly through them than in the control cells.”
Safety in humans established (from over 50 years of worldwide clinical use) – check. Promise of its success in in-vitro tests – check. The Sydney Morning Herald reports “As well as fighting the common cold and influenza, it could be useful in containing the spread of viral outbreaks including SARS, Zika and Ebola.”
Why then am I still questioning this drug? Because it’s now being tested in animals.
Considering species differences between humans and other animals, what if this doesn't work the same way in mice or dogs or whatever other animal they use? Will it then be discarded despite its track record to date? The research paper already acknowledges some differences in other species: “The response to sub-toxic concentrations of flavine described here is likely to be cell-type dependent, and was, for instance, absent in mouse L929 cells”
Could this potential cure for a wide variety of ailments be discarded if the animal data does not stack up? Or if indeed the drug is marketed despite the differences in animals, well then why proceed with testing on a different species in the first place?
We already know that 92-95% of drugs successful in animal tests fail in human clinical trials. This drug already has a proven record through decades of clinical use in humans. It also shows great promise through in-vitro tests. Let’s not waste precious resources on unreliable and unpredictable animal tests and instead focus on human-specific test methods. Perhaps we will then see one of these reported medical breakthroughs finally come to fruition.