Hong Kong Med J 2011;17:507-13 | Number 6, December 2011
A biography of arsenic and medicine in Hong Kong and China
University Medicine Unit, Queen Mary Hospital, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong
Arsenic trioxide has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 5000 years, but lost its appeal due to its toxicity. It was rediscovered in western medicine and enjoyed a renaissance from 1830 to 1930, as the first effective chemotherapy against syphilis, parasites and leukaemia. These years were also a time of political turmoil in China. The Nanking treaty (29 August 1842) turned Hong Kong into a colony, while the Xinhai Revolution (10 October 1911) gave birth to a republic of China. Arsenic returned to China and Hong Kong with the establishment of the first medical schools from 1887 to 1920. Until 1950, oral arsenic trioxide was the standard anti-leukaemic treatment in Queen Mary Hospital. The advent of alkylating chemotherapeutic agents replaced arsenic trioxide in Hong Kong and around the world. In the 1970s, however, the specific activity of arsenic trioxide against acute promyelocytic leukaemia was re-discovered during the Cultural Revolution in Harbin, China. In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China. In the same year, arsenic trioxide returned to the world stage. Intravenous arsenic trioxide became the worldwide standard therapy for relapsed acute promyelocytic leukaemia. Oral administration of arsenic trioxide was revived in Hong Kong in 2000. This resulted in the first locally produced, registered, patented prescription drug in Hong Kong. Pending imminent manufacture, this product is poised to revolutionise acute promyelocytic leukaemia care and may hold the key to saving the lives of acute promyelocytic leukaemia patients worldwide. The remarkable journey of arsenic in the setting of medical history of China and Hong Kong is reviewed.
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