Medicine: TB --and Hope

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Never in the agelong history of tuberculosis had there been such excitement about a new treatment for the white scourge. The tabloid New York Post used most of its front page to proclaim in two-inch type: WONDER DRUG FIGHTS TB. The New York Times gave the story top of Page One. In Staten Island's Sea View Hospital, patients who had taken the drugs danced in the wards, to the delight of news photographers. At Tuba City, in the Western Navajo Reservation of Arizona, Indians powwowed solemnly about the progress toward recovery that a 17-year-old Navajo girl was making. Around the world, physicians and patients wondered what it would all add up to in the end.

They will have to wait quite a while for an answer.

Parallel Lines. A few years ago, researchers of Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. in Nutley, N.J. began testing a series of chemicals that might be useful against TB, and wound up with a group similar to nicotinic acid (part of the vitamin-B complex). Without knowledge of this, chemists of E. R. Squibb & Sons were doing a parallel job. Both groups settled on the hydrazide of isonicotinic acid as the best.

This compound, which Hoffmann-La Roche called Rimifon (and Squibb called Nydrazid), killed tubercle bacilli in test tubes. Lots of things do that. It also seemed to cure tuberculosis in mice without killing the mice. That was promising. It did the same for a rhesus monkey. Rimifon seemed safe enough to be used on human patients. Last June, doctors at Sea View Hospital started giving it to volunteers from among the 1,500 patients.

To be eligible for the tests, the patients had to have advanced tuberculosis of both lungs, usually with a persistent cough producing a lot of sputum loaded with tubercle bacilli. Of the first 92 patients, 44 had fever. Many had lost weight until they were living skeletons, with no appetite and no ambition. All had reached the point where no other drug or treatment seemed to help them.

Eleven Eggs a Day. Rimifon and a related product called Marsilid produced results that were obvious to the eye. All 44 patients with fever had a temperature drop to normal within two weeks, most of them within one week, some in a single day. Patients who had picked apathetically at their food became ravenous; they called for third and fourth helpings of cereal, and many worked up from one egg at breakfast to five. One old man got his ration up to eleven.

Weight gains were amazing. All 92 patients in the series showed some gain; several gained up to 50 pounds in three months. At first, the doctors were worried that the added weight might show up as an unhealthy accumulation of water, but with minor exceptions this did not happen. Patients who had been bedridden for months felt so much stronger that they got up and wandered around the wards.

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