How Was Chemotherapy Invented?

Industrial chemists played a key role in World War I. Amid the bullets and bombs, chemists developed a weapon that killed in easier ways, a ghastly death that spread fear to every trench and foxhole. The deployment of mustard gas, reportedly used as early as 1917 in Belgium, caused horrible blisters and uncontrolled itching, creating a living hell for the afflicted until death brought relief weeks later. However, in an odd twist of fate, research on the effects of this lethal gas ultimately led to the development of chemotherapy, used today to fight cancer.

During World War II, the US Army studied a number of chemicals related to mustard gas, including a compound called nitrogen mustard, which was found to work against a cancer of the lymph nodes called lymphoma. Nitrogen mustard served as the model for more effective agents (known as alkylating agents) that could wipe out fast-growing cancer cells by damaging their DNA.

A battleground in the body:

  • The discovery of nitrogen mustard was soon followed by the use of aminopterin, an antifolate that led to remission in children with acute leukemia. Aminopterin blocked a chemical reaction needed for DNA replication.

  • Aminopterin was the predecessor of methotrexate, a cancer treatment drug used today. Since then, other drugs have been developed to block different aspects of cell growth and replication.

  • Metastatic cancer was first cured in 1956 when methotrexate was used to treat a rare tumor called a choriocarcinoma.

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More Info: American Cancer Society

Discuss this Article

Post 1

"a ghastly death that spread fear to every trench and foxhole".

I see that is a very strong poison, and I wonder if that would not kill the good cells before killing the cancer cells.

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