We Got Chemotherapy Thanks To Chemical Weapons

The government kept this secret for years.
We Got Chemotherapy Thanks To Chemical Weapons

Chemotherapy, to treat cancer, generally means doctors inject you with poison. The poison messes with your body in all kinds of ways, and it also messes with the cancer cells, keeping them from multiplying. When it works, it’s worth it. Still, it's not the most elegant solution, and someday in the future, when we've figured out how to cure cancer using sour candy or something, our grandchildren will shudder to hear what we old-timey people used to turn to for medicine.

As with so many types of medicine, you might say scientists first discovered the curative properties of poison by mistake. Meaning, they first noticed the properties when someone encountered the substance for reasons totally unrelated to the eventual medicinal use—though, the process of turning this discovery into a viable treatment was long and hard and not just a happy accident. 

The original poison in question was Bis(2-chloroethyl) sulfide. It has several other names too, including LOST, after two scientists named Lommel and Steinkopf (the show LOST actually featured toxic gas in a major plot, and this possibly wasn't a coincidence). Wilhelm Lommel and Wilhelm Steinkopf were German scientists, and they produced the gas for the German army. You know the substance better as mustard gas.

Following World War I, the armies of the world knew well that mustard gas does terrible things to people's bones and lymphatic tissue, in addition to the more obvious effects on skin and eyes. Soon after, doctors investigated how the gas could be used to attack lymphatic tissue for good instead of evil, by striking cancerous lymphomas. Experiments on mice proved very promising, but no one really followed up on the research. Maybe the idea of dealing with the gas was too horrifying to attract many doctors.

A few decades later came another world war, and now, the government stepped up research on mustard gas's effects on the body, so we'd all know what we were dealing with. This reinvigorated the quest to see if the gas might just cure cancer. Yale scientists tried carefully administering the stuff to one patient who'd had no luck with any other treatment, and it actually worked. 

We've got lots of more dedicated cancer medications now. But that original derivative of mustard gas, Mustargen? Doctors still use it on cancer patients, even today. 

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Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: National Cancer Institute

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