The vital heart drugs digoxin and digitoxin are the pure substances extracted from digitalis whose value in treating heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias originated from studies of human patients.(1,2) However, doctors must be careful not to give too high a dose as they can then be toxic. Fortunately the drugs did not derive from animal experiments since doses considered safe for rats, guinea pigs, dogs, and cats can actually kill human patients.(3) Today we know that digoxin's lethal dose is more accurately predicted by test-tube studies with human cells.(4)
Animal tests also suggested that digitalis raised the blood pressure, and as a result, it was once widely taught that the drug would be dangerous for certain patients and should not therefore be given. Thankfully, clinical observations eventually showed this to be incorrect and digitalis can be used with great benefit.(2)
1) W.Sneader, Drug Discovery: The Evolution of Modern Medicine (Wiley, 1985)
2) T.Lewis, Clinical Science (Shaw & Sons Ltd, 1934)
3) G.T.Okita, Federation Proceedings, 1967, vol.26, 1125-1130.
4) R.Jover et al, Toxicology In Vitro, 1992, vol.6, 47-52.
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