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‘Lethal’ arsenic cure for cancer

Thirty-year-old Sonali Bhowmik of Regent Estate was bleeding from her ears, nose and mouth and had red blotches all over her body when she was rushed to a top hospital for treatment. After a series of tests, she was detected suffering from acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML) — an extremely difficult form of leukaemia that has little recovery scope. Three months of special trial treatment later, Sonali is fully fit and leading a normal life.

Sonali’s case turned out to be historic in the context of cancer research and treatment in eastern India after four top haemato-oncologists of the city treated her with ‘arsenic trioxide’, a lethal chemical, but used effectively to cure her ailment.

In the APML syndrome, even bone marrow transplants, anti-cancer drugs and chemotherapy fail to destroy the cancer cells due to inherent genetic characteristics in the patient. APML is generally caused by translocation of body (15-17) chromosomes.

As a result, the patient has to undergo routine chemotherapy and blood transfusions for years, only to control the disease. But, with a resurgent modern science in the West, a few American scientists recently started using ‘Trisenox’, or arsenic, to successfully kill the cells in APML cases.

“The use of arsenic was debatable as it has sometimes causes arrhythmia and has other mild side-effects. But, we knew that arsenic had the capability of destroying the cancer cells and allowed a patient a carefree life for 30 to 40 years. That was good enough reason for us to go ahead with the treatment,” said haemato-oncologist A. Mukherjee, who, along with S Patnaik, M.K. Das and S. Mukherjee—part of Kothari Medical Centre’s core oncology team — worked out the treatment procedure.

To start with, Sonali was administered 28 ampules of Trisenox (arsenic), each 10 mg daily, for 28 days, costing a sum of Rs 4.5 lakh, apart from the other anti-cancer drugs in the form of a special form of Vitamin A. “She was kept under strict observation and several months have passed without her showing any signs of her slipping into any recurrence of the APML syndrome,” Dr Mukherjee added.

The second patient was 45-year-old Rohit Tejpal, who had high fever, multiple black spots and bone marrow degeneration. After 28 days of prolonged treatment and a few weeks of post-medication care, Rohit walked home without any complaints.

Twelve-year-old Sunju Srivastava, who had initial complaints of acute epistaxis (nasal bleeding) and urine bleeding, is currently on a low-dose Trisenox regimen, with 5 mg ampules being administered to him for the next four weeks. “I am feeling a lot better now,” said Sunju, lying in his hospital bed on Tuesday.

“This has been a signal service to society and we are confident that the medications will significantly help these types of leukaemia patients who come to us (eight to nine a month). With a new Indian company launching the medicine soon, it will also be less costly,” said Kothari’s medical superintendent S. Sahay.

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