From cocaine to ropivacaine:
the history of local anesthetic drugs

Ruetsch YA, Boni T, Borgeat A.
University of Zurich,
Department of Anesthesiology,
Orthopedic University Clinic Balgrist, Switzerland.
[email protected]
Curr Top Med Chem 2001 Aug;1(3):175-82


In 1850, about three centuries after the conquest of Peru by Pizzaro, the Austrian von Scherzer brought a sufficient quantum of coca leaves to Europe to permit the isolation of cocaine. As suggested by his friend Sigmund Freud, descriptions of the properties of the coca prompted the Austrian Koller to perform in 1884 the first clinical operation under local anesthesia, by administration of cocaine on the eye. The use of cocaine for local and regional anesthesia rapidly spread throughout Europe and America. The toxic effects of cocaine were soon identified resulting in many deaths among both patients and addicted medical staff. Local anesthesia was in a profound crisis until the development of modern organic chemistry which led to the synthesis of pure cocaine in 1891. New amino ester local anesthetics were synthesized between 1891 and 1930, such as tropocaine, eucaine, holocaine, orthoform, benzocaine, and tetracaine. In addition, amino amide local anesthetics were prepared between 1898 and 1972 including nirvaquine, procaine, chloroprocaine, cinchocaine, lidocaine, mepivacaine, prilocaine, efocaine, bupivacaine, etidocaine, and articaine. All of these drugs were ostensibly less toxic than cocaine, but they had differing amounts of central nervous system (CNS) and cardiovascular (CV) toxicity. Bupivacaine is of special interest because of its long duration of action and history of clinical application. Synthesized in 1957, the introduction of bupivacaine on the market in 1965 paralleled the progressive and cumulative reports of CNS and CV toxicity, leading to the restriction of its use and the identification of a special therapy-resistant CV toxicity. Numerous experimental studies were conducted to identify the fine cellular mechanism of this toxicity, which refines our understanding of the action of local anesthetics. The identification of optically active isomers of the mepivacaine family led to the selection of ropivacaine, a pure S-(-) enantiomer, whose toxicology was selectively and extensively studied before its introduction on the market in 1996. During the rapid and extensive use of ropivacaine in the clinic, unwanted side-effects have been found to be very limited.

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