Who knew one of the most important medicines could arise from a deadly weapon? Chemotherapy is known as the treatment of cancer using medicine or drugs. It can kill the majority of cancer cells that have spread throughout the body. It works by keeping cancer cells from growing and dividing. Surgery and radiation therapy kill and damage cancer cells in an area, while chemotherapy is able to treat the whole body. But, this cancer treatment doesn’t only destroy cancer cells; it can also damage blood cells and cause hair loss. The good thing is these side effects can be controlled. Chemotherapy was not originally intended to be used as a cancer treatment though.

The introduction of cancer-treating drugs can be traced directly to the use of chemical weapons by the Germans in World War I. Chemotherapy was first developed during World War II when it was discovered that mustard gas caused people to have a reduced count of white blood cells. Researchers then wondered if mustard agents could stop cancer cells from dividing. They hypothesized that if mustard gas could destroy normal white blood cells, then it could probably also destroy cancerous ones.

In 1940, two Yale pharmacologists, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, used a more stable form of mustard gas, nitrogen mustard, to treat a cancer tumor in a patient. After a few weeks the tumor in the patient had been significantly reduced. Due to the success of the treatment, nitrogen mustard and similar agents were used to treat cancer afterwards. Chemotherapy started to gain popularity over the next two decades, and is still a treatment for patients today, causing a rise in cancer survivors. Mustard gas, one of the deadliest chemical weapons, had gone from extremely devastating, to being used to find a treatment to a disease.

By Shahd ElNaggar