Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) was first synthesized in 1866 by Russian scientist Alexander Saytzeff, who noted that the substance was colourless, smelt like garlic, was oily to the touch, resembled mineral oil when poured and tasted like clams or oysters. It combined with almost any chemical and was an excellent solvent proving extremely useful as a de-greaser, paint thinner and anti-freeze. It was only after World War II that chemists started to show an active interest in the substance, and in 1959, British chemists demonstrated that DMSO protected red blood cells and other tissues against freezing conditions. It is a reagent that can speed up some chemical reactions a billion fold. Basically the substance is a simple byproduct of the paper-making process. It can be derived from lignin, the cement substance of trees, and can also be synthesized from coal, petroleum or other organic substances.
What amazed scientists and chemists alike was the liquid’s tremendous capacity to dissolve substances. DMSO’s unique capability to penetrate living tissues without causing significant damage is related to its relatively compact structure and polar nature as well as its capacity to accept hydrogen bonds. This combination of properties allows it to associate with water, proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acid, ionic substances and other constituents of living systems. In the understanding of the possible functions of DMSO in biological systems, of premier importance is its ability to replace some of the water molecules associated with the cellular constituents. But what really caused a scientific ‘buzz’ was its drying effect. Since wetness or moisture generally tends to instigate infection, the dryness of a therapeutic agent makes it very valuable in the treatment of burns. Laboratory tests proved that DMSO easily passed through skin and mucous membranes with the added advantage of being able to carry along with it other substances as well during its passage. For example, if either a local anesthetic or penicillin is dissolved in DMSO they can be carried through the skin and into all organs of the body without using a needle! DMSO was first used as a pharmacologic agent in 1962 and gained fame as a chemical that could relieve inflammation and pain in many conditions, including those that had remained untreatable by all other methods. Early studies had revealed that it could relieve pain, reduce swelling, hamper bacterial growth, soften scar tissue, improve blood supply, was an effective muscle relaxant, could act as a diuretic and could also enhance the effectiveness of other pharmacologic agents. In addition, the pain of sprains, burns, strains, arthritis-even those of broken bones-was completely eliminated. DMSO kills viruses and fungi and works marvelously against cataracts, sports injuries, scleroderma, myasthenia gravis and tuberculosis. In persons with Down’s syndrome, the mental retardation has been considerably lessened. It has been popularly prescribed by vets for arthritic conditions and injuries in animals.