Arsenic is often the poison of choice for authors of great murder mysteries. But, as CBS This Morning Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports, this deadly chemical could be a good thing when it comes to fighting certain types of cancers.
A study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine reports that low doses of arsenic were successful in sending 11 of 12 patients into complete remission from the disease.
"These people were on their way out. So to be able to treat and completely eliminate the disease to below detectable levels - that's extraordinary," said Dr. Robert E. Gallagher of New York's Montefiore Medical Center. He was not involved in the study, but wrote an accompanying editorial.
Terese Fimognari is a patient in an ongoing study at the cancer center. She can hardly believe that arsenic has made her feel so much better. "It's amazing that a poison that would kill someone like you can help save our lives. In 27 days, it put me into remission, and then my bone marrow, three weeks later, was still clean. So it was pretty exciting!" says Fimognari.
Arsenic is a lethal poison and a carcinogen, but arsenic compounds have been used as medicines for thousands of years.
Researchers in China were the first to report that low doses of arsenic oxide could induce remission in patients with a particularly severe form of leukemia known as "APL" or acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Now, doctors at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are reporting that they have had similar results using arsenic.
The treatment apparently works by stopping cancer cells from reproducing, and then causing them to self-destruct.
Arsenic was used in the early part of this century to treat cancer, but it fell out of favor in the 1930s when doctors developed chemotherapy.
For Terese, the treatment has been much less painful than traditional chemotherapy, and her remission has given her doctors other options for continuing to control her leukemia.
The treatment is still being tested on an experimental basis. It may be only the beginning of arsenic's use against cancer. But doctors says test tube studies have indicated it may work against other leukemias and even some tumors, including breast and prostate cancer.
Reported by CBS 'This Morning's' Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay