Chemotherapy: from world war to the war on cancer

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oncology news australiaSource: The Guardian.

The first weapon to be successfully deployed against cancer came not from a hospital or lab but from the trenches of the war that marks its centenary this year.

Few things evoke the horror of battle so powerfully as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est.

Gas! Gas! … flound’ring like a man in fire or lime … guttering, choking, drowning … blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.

Mustard gas was originally used in the first world war, and even though it was subsequently outlawed under the Geneva Convention, over 2,000 nitrogen mustard bombs – 100 tonnes of the poison – were secretly stockpiled on a US ship anchored at Bari, an Italian base. When the SS John Harvey was blown up in a German air raid during the second world war, its secret cargo detonated, causing untold death and suffering – and sowing the seed from which cancer medicine would grow.

A chemical warfare expert arrived to confront the aftermath, and the postmortems he ordered showed something startling: people who had succumbed to the poison had very few lymph and bone marrow cells.

Back then, cancer was an enigma. One of the few things known was that cancer cells, like lymph and bone marrow cells, multiply much faster than normal cells. Following the principle that “the dose makes the poison”, scientists wondered if a low dose of nitrogen mustard could be used to treat cancer.

And so chemotherapy was born. Like war, it was dangerous and unpredictable, sometimes advancing, often forced to retreat. The first time a patient was treated with cyclophosphamide, the active part of nitrogen mustard, the tumour shrank – something not even thought possible at the time. But it was a temporary miracle. Treatment had to be stopped when the patient’s side effects became life-threatening in themselves…read more.

This is the first in a three-part series on the history and future of chemotherapy published by The Guardian Science Blog. The second focuses on targeted therapy and the third on drug resistance.


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The ONA Editor curates oncology news, views and reviews from Australia and around the world for our readers. In aggregated content, original sources will be acknowledged in the article footer.

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