A look into the history of Mustard Gas and how it forever changed cancer research – A High Schooler’s POV by Rishi Manoharan and Aditya Thiyag
Over one hundred years ago, a conflict of unprecedented size commanded the world. Aptly titled “The Great War”, World War I claimed over 40 million lives. However, one weapon used in the war would end up preventing future deaths rather than causing them – mustard gas.
While not technically considered a gas, mustard gas was a weapon originally utilized by Germany in 1917 to gain the upper hand against the allied forces in WWI. It caused blisters on the skin, soaking through the war uniforms knitted at the time, making it a force to be reckoned with. If inhaled, it leads to blisters in the lungs and throat, causing death. So how would such a weapon end up saving lives?
Twenty years after Germany’s usage of mustard gas in WWI, WWII saw the allied forces, specifically the United States, investigating the use of Mustard gas. They started their research by examining what made mustard gas so dangerous – its penchant for being able to be absorbed by the skin through clothes. Soldiers were impacted by the inhalation of the gas and doctors noted the stark change in bone marrow cells. Doctors noted that bone marrow cells were becoming far more toxic over time and undergoing severe microscopic changes as exposure to the gas increased. In pursuit of gaining an advantage, akin to Germany, U.S. scientists invented Nitrogen Mustard; the gas that changed cancer research forever, particularly when it came to lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, the system which fights diseases in the body.
Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, pharmacologists at Yale University, discovered that soldiers with the mustard gas in their system had a low blood count. Upon this discovery, the scientists posed the question: if mustard gas could kill blood cells, could it also kill cancer cells? They found that the mice receiving treatment had a reduced tumor size. This was revolutionary news for the world of cancer researchers and patients alike, as it marked the first known effective treatment of cancer. To test this theory, the pair recruited a man simply named “J.D”. J.D. was an immigrant with an especially bad case of lymphoma. With many treatments such as x-rays, radiation, surgery, and more yielding no positive results, Gilman and Goodman looked for a solution to J.D.’s severe chronic pain and lymphoma. On August 27, 1942, J.D received his first dose of Nitrogen Mustard, receiving 10 daily treatments. After the end of the treatment, the tumor tissue had been reduced to nothing and he was no longer in pain. Sadly, J.D. would pass away the next week, as his white blood cell count decreased and J.D. had internal bleeding, eventually leading to his demise.
While the chemotherapy used in 1942 was helpful in the battle against cancer, it was too toxic for mainstream use. This is when Professor Alexander Haddow, a key scientist at the time, came into play. In 1948, he published a report in which he showed how to alter the Nitrogen Mustard molecule to kill cancer cells in a less toxic manner in comparison to the chemotherapy used on J.D. 6 years prior. These advancements led to reduced tumor growth in animals, and was considered the first step in improving chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is extremely effective, but it is not without its shortcomings. Patients can have cells severely damaged by the chemicals, experience constant hair loss, bone marrow issues, and far more. Taking JD as an example, chemotherapy might have been his saving grace, but it was simultaneously the probable cause of his sudden death. The intensity of Nitrogen Mustard caused a sudden loss in white blood cells, which led to decreased count and eventual death. Similarly, the non-specificity of chemotherapy leads to issues within JD as well. Modern science has improved upon this by having specific chemotherapy which can target specific cells and sections of the body, rather than what occurred with JD.
In addition to chemotherapy becoming more specific, more varieties of cancer therapy have recently been developed, such as immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and other types of therapy that will be discussed in future articles.
While the cruel origins of Mustard gas saw the deaths of thousands of soldiers, its contributions to cancer research may have led to the prevention of thousands more. Without the hard work of renowned researchers like Haddow, Gilman, and Goodman, and the cooperation of patients like J.D., it is likely that chemotherapy would likely have not been found until decades later. Chemotherapy might be a mixed bag, but the drawbacks pale in comparison to the large advancements made in the fight against cancer.