Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Medicine from Mustard
01 July 2014

Medicine from Mustard

August 2014 will mark one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. July 1917 saw the introduction of a sinister and vicious weapon, mustard gas. Primarily it was used not to kill – though it was fatal in high enough doses – but to induce pain and suffering in an attempt to exhaust medical supplies. Victims endured blisters, blindness, vomiting and choking to death as the gas stripped bronchial tubes of the mucous membrane. Doctors noticed that those not instantly killed by the gas died weeks later with depleted bone marrow and white blood cells [immune cells]. This was the first time that they’d seen any chemical attack specific cells. Scientists theorised that perhaps another chemical could kill only cancer cells. Thus began the development of chemotherapy. Who’d have thought that a poison designed a century ago to maim and slaughter would provide a clue to eradicating cancer?

Written by Rebekah Kells

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