Univadis Miniseries: Chemotherapy Part 1 - A Brief History


  • Sarah Issa
  • Univadis Medical News
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Chemo(chemical)therapy, originally coined in the 20th century to mean treatment of diseases by chemicals  was first used in chemical warfare during World War I and its application in cancer treatment wasn't studied until World War II.

The US Department of Defense recruited Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman who started investigating the therapeutic potential of mustard gas in 1942.

After producing a more stable form of the agent, nitrogen mustard,  they managed to prove its efficacy in treating lymphoma in mice.

Nitrogen mustards are non-specific DNA alkylating agents, affecting a key step in the mechanism that leads to apoptosis via p53.

Shortly after World War II, pathologist Sidney Farber studied the effects of folic acid,  originally discovered in 1937 by Lucy Wills, on leukaemia patients.

Albeit brief, Farber demonstrated a remission in children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when treated with folic acid antagonists (methotrexate).

And in 1951 Jane Wright revealed the efficacy of methotrexate against solid tumours.

Wright later pioneered work in chemotherapeutics using multi-drug approaches, increasing effectiveness of chemotherapy while minimising side effects.

Since the advent of chemotherapy, survival has improved across cancer types.

Research and innovation in the field of oncology continue to help patients and healthcare professionals in the fight against cancer.