Poison V.S Cancer

Hazard-Property of the public domain

 Mustard gas, a chemical weapon utilized during world war one
went on to be developed as the first chemotherapeutic agent in the fight against cancer.


Mustard Gas , a poison utilized by the Germans during World War I, earned it’s name from its pungent odour and colour.

While not a particularly efficient killing agent it was used to harass and immobilise its targets by causing; severe skin irritation in the form of blisters and bleeding, vomiting and stripping off the mucus membrane of the bronchial tube, all of which are clearly associated with severe pain.

Though mustard gas crippled and killed many soldiers its contribution to medical science should not be ignored.

Twenty years post World War I and the threat of a new war looms over the world. Scientists of the Yale community are desperately trying to find a cure for mustard gas but what they discovered instead would revolutionize our war against cancer.

Though it wasn’t known at the time, observation at micro level will see that  mustard gas’ destructive nature is due to its ability to bind to dividing cells DNA. As a result this triggers the cells self-destruct mechanisms or  apoptosis and the cell dies.

Looking through the WWI medical records of gas  inflicted soldiers scientists quickly discovered a decreased white blood cell count among the wounded.
Leukocytes regularly proliferate, making them prone to the effects of mustard gas.
The question became obvious, if mustard gas worked to destroy healthy Leukocytes was it also able to terminate malignant ones?

A serum was devised from the deadly mustard gas and after initial experiments on animals the Yale scientists were ready for a human trial.
In 1942 a steel worker volunteered himself. However during this time period a trial this revolutionary was kept top secret, therefore the man’s identity simply became JD.

Unfortunately at this stage in his life JD’s body was riddled with leukaemia to the point where his physician had describes his prognoses as “Utterly hopples”.
Tumour growth within the cervical lymph nodes had advanced until JD struggled to sleep, eat and breath. Without drastic measures he was already dead.

The developed Serum X was given to JD and a rapid improvement in quality of life could be seen over the period of a few days.
As it were JD’s condition had caused irreversible damage and despite drastic improvements JD passed on.

This was the first chemotherapeutic agent to be developed and trialled for the war against cancer.

Seventy-one years have passed since JD’s sacrifice for medicine, in that time chemotherapy has advanced endlessly yet we should never forget its origins or the people who have dedicated their lives for a better future.

3 Responses to “Poison V.S Cancer”

  1. ccroft says:

    Really interesting, i never new mustard gas had been used in this way before! Its strange to think that something once used to kill and maim people can be turned into something which could save lives or alleviate suffering,by just a matter of application.
    Thanks for the story Aidan!!

  2. amdixon says:

    At the time I suppose there were very relaxed ethical standards. Not to say they hadn’t tested the drug. animal trials had been done over a 2 or three year period.
    But when it comes down to it, someone in desperate need of medical aid in an age where cancer treatment doesn’t excist is the perfect candidate.
    JD actually died with more relief than compared to his last few years because of the mustard gas originated chemotherapeutic agent.
    It’s funny, because of the relaxed ethics and desperation in many situations we were able to make drastic changes and improvements in science for a better today. However, Is the science of today to slow or slowing down?

  3. Matt Megens says:

    Seems like giving untested drugs to dying patients is a popular way to discover what works. Penicillin was first tested in humans in a similar context. Uncomfortable stuff (but giving them to healthy patients – what happens nowadays – can be just as riddled with ethical issues).
    Interesting to hear another use for mustard plants, too. Most of the green vegetables we eat share the same ancestor as mustards. It’s everywhere!