Mustard gas destroyed thousands of lives during World War I, so why is it being mentioned alongside a game-changing lifesaver like chemotherapy?

The story of how mustard gas went from one of the most terrifying weapons humanity has ever created to becoming one of our most potent weapons against cancer is a bit of a long and winding journey. Although mustard gas was outlawed by the Geneva Protocol after World War One, it has a fascinating role in the origin story of chemotherapy. This toxin has gone from chemical warfare to a revolution in cancer treatment research—talk about living a double life!

Did you know?

  1. The external impacts of mustard gas were already well known from World War One, and in World War Two, German planes attacking the Allied forces invading Italy sank the American ship—SS John Harvey.
  2. The SS John Harvey was secretly filled with thousands of mustard gas munitions, and when it exploded, much of the port was exposed to mustard gas.
  3. While treating victims of this tragedy, and of earlier mustard gas attacks, an important discovery was made.
  4. Mustard gas victims were found to have fewer bone marrow and lymph cells than non-victims, meaning that the gas had attacked and destroyed these cells.
  5. Two doctors, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, had the hypothesis that if mustard gas could destroy healthy blood cells, it could also obliterate cancerous ones.
  6. This would revolutionize treatment of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma which start in the blood, and for which there was no treatment at the time.
  7. After successful animal testing, the duo went on to treat a human volunteer known only as J.D.
  8. J.D. had advanced lymphoma. The treatment shrank his tumours somewhat and reduced his symptoms and suffering, giving birth to the era of chemotherapy.
  9. Straight mustard gas was too problematic to use, so a variation called nitrogen mustard was developed for use in medical settings.
  10. In the end, mustard gas is still a weapon, but now it fights on our side in the war on cancer…perhaps it will someday save more lives than it has taken.