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Development of Chemotherapy

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Chemotherapy is a common treatment for cancer, but it has come a long way from its early days. In this lesson we'll take a trip back in history to see how chemotherapy was developed, though its roots may surprise you!

What is Chemotherapy?

Unfortunately, cancer is an all-too common occurrence in our modern times. But we also live in a time when there are many effective approaches to treating it. One such approach is chemotherapy, which gets its name because chemicals are used to treat the disease. For cancer, chemotherapy uses drugs to slow, shrink, or destroy cancer cells within your body. Instead of having surgery or radiation therapy, which can only target a small area, chemotherapy can work throughout the entire body.

chemotherapy injection

You can receive chemotherapy in different ways, such as through an IV, orally, through an injection, or even as a cream on your skin. And because each person's cancer is unique, their chemotherapy plan will be personalized to them.

A War Time Discovery

We don't generally think of wars as a good thing, but they are often a time of new inventions and discoveries. World War II was no exception, and during this time we saw the invention of agricultural fertilizer, drones, and even the precursor to the modern-day computer. It's also when chemotherapy was first developed.

Mustard compounds, which cause severe bodily damage, also have antitumor properties
mustard gas burn

During both WWI and WWII it was found that troops that were exposed to mustard gas, a chemical agent that causes severe burning of the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, had severely depleted bone marrow and lymph nodes in their bodies. The United States Army was interested in studying these gases to create better chemical weapons, but also to develop protective measures for their troops.

In 1943, two Yale pharmacologists, Alfred Gilman and Louis Goodman, ran experiments on mice with lymph tumors using a mustard compound called nitrogen mustard. The compound was found to work against the tumors, and this result served as the foundation for the development of other alkylating agents used to treat cancer. The way it works is that the alkylating agent adds an alkyl group to the proteins of the DNA molecule. This prevents the DNA double-helix strands from linking properly, which in turn prevents the cancer cells from multiplying.

Other Advances

The alkylating agents were a great discovery at first, but as it turned out they were not a good solution since the cancer's remission was short-lived. The search for effective cancer treatments was not to be discouraged though, and in 1948, Sidney Farber and Harriet Kilte developed folic-acid related compounds that did produce successful remission in children with leukemia. These compounds were the predecessors of the modern drug chemotherapy drug methotrexate.

Cancer cells dividing
cancer cell dividing

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