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Shibasaburo Kitasato (January 29, 1853 - June 13, 1931) Born in Japan Year of Discovery: 1890, 1894
Crucial to Developing First Diphtheria and Tetanus Therapies
Only the best and the brightest. That was the philosophy of the cooperative medical research between Germany and Japan in the late nineteenth century. Kitasato was a perfect fit, a talented and insightful researcher. So, in 1885, the Japanese Home Ministry sent Kitasato to Berlin to study with Robert Koch. Kitasato would spend the next six years honing his already impressive skills and make several significant contributions to the emerging fields of serology and immunology. His most significant contributions involved tetanus and diphtheria. Kitasato identified a toxin secreted by the tetanus bacteria that he could use to produce immunity to tetanus. Working with Emil von Behring, the pair produced the antitoxins used in the prevention and treatment of both tetanus and diphtheria.
Tetanus is a disease of the skeletal muscles that causes them to go into spasms and is often referred to as "lockjaw." This is because the muscles of mouth and neck are the first to be affected, resulting in the inability to open one's mouth. The spasms then descend, engulfing the rest of the body. Tetanus is an infection from a cut or a puncture wound, and is fatal in about 10 percent of the cases. Diphtheria is a horrible disease, often referred to as the "strangling angel," because of the suffocating membrane that can form over the throat and tonsils. It is easily spread, typically from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Initial symptoms appear 2 to 5 days after infection and may include a sore throat, swollen glands, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, and fever. Some people may suffer only a mild reaction, but diphtheria may be fatal for others. It is especially life-threatening to children. The complications include toxic damage to the heart muscles (diphtheric myocarditis) and to the peripheral nerves (neuritis). Diphtheria is rare in developed nations, thanks to widespread vaccination programs, but continues to be a serious threat in developing nations.
Kitasato and von Behring worked along parallel paths, with each pursuing a serum-based treatment. While Behring focused on diphtheria, Kitasato took on the challenge of tetanus. In his first breakthrough, Kitasato did what others had failed to achieve: he isolated the tetanus bacillus (rod shaped bacteria). This was an especially difficult task because the bacillus was one that survives without oxygen (anaerobic). Kitasato then discovered he could inject very small amounts of the tetanus toxin into rabbits and they would survive. The amounts were small enough they didn't cause active disease - but they provided protection against ever-higher doses of the toxin. Not only did the animals survive, Kitasato found that their blood now had the ability to neutralize the toxin. This was the breakthrough! Both he and Behring were convinced there was "something in the blood" of these animals and they joined forces to seek the answer. They knew it was too risky to use the approach directly on humans, but they thought they might be able to use the blood of protected animals to produce a suitable treatment. They started with mice. The pair patiently injected the mice with increasing doses of toxin. They then inoculated disease-free mice with the blood from the treated mice. The disease-free mice were also protected. It was a stunning discovery and set the stage for the first human trials. On Christmas Day 1891, with just enough serum for a single dose, the pair administered the revolutionary diphtheria antitoxin to a deathly ill little girl in a Berlin hospital. The result was spectacular! The antitoxin worked and it successfully launched a fight against diphtheria that would turn it into a rare occurrence in the modern age.
Kitasato and Behring worked in precise scientific stages. They first identified the toxins that were active in tetanus and diphtheria. This alone was significant. They then discovered the antitoxins that were effective in combating the diseases. Though "antitoxin" is in common usage toady, it was Kitasato and Behring who first coined the term to describe their disease-fighting material.