The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2017

"Fighting Cancer: Chemotherapy" by Neha Lingareddy


Cancer is one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

Millions of people die of cancer every year, making this disease the leviathan of the medical world. A cure for cancer is often seen as distant and unlikely to happen in our lifetime. However, our methods of fighting cancer are constantly evolving and over the centuries, several endeavors have been made to fight this notorious disease.

Chemotherapy is one of the methods of treatment that has been developed extensively. The term was coined by German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, who sought to develop a treatment that would only target pathogens, leaving the patient’s body healthy and untouched. Today, the term ‘chemotherapy’ refers to treatment using a wide range of chemical treatments that can target specific portions of cancerous cells and potentially inhibit their growth.

The development of chemotherapy as we know it has a long and interesting history. In the early 20th century, doctors found that toxic mustard gas was capable of suppressing cell growth. This discovery resulted from the observation that soldiers who fought in WWII were found to have far fewer white blood cells (WBCs) in their systems compared to those of healthy humans. Since WBCs regulate immune responses in humans, their immune systems were jeopardized. Two doctors from Brown University, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, attributed this diminished WBC ratio to the soldiers’ exposure to mustard gas. They realized that if mustard gas was capable of destroying healthy cells, it could be used to destroy cancerous cells as well. Goodman and Gilman developed nitrogen mustard and experimented with this compound in the treatment of cancer. Patients with advanced lymphoma were intravenously given this drug, labelled substance ‘X.’ The results showed an extreme reduction in the size of the tumors of the patients. This research was groundbreaking.

Goodman and Gilman’s work catapulted cancer research years into the future. Sir Alexander Haddow, another scientist, later re-developed their drug to make it less noxious and more effective in targeting only cancerous cells. With the help of several other researchers, we now have a broad range of chemotherapeutic agents to combat cancer.

Chemotherapeutic agents today range from hormones to antibiotics to other chemical agents that can target various components of the cell, including the DNA, the microtubules, and the cell receptors. Because these drugs work by arresting the growth of all cells, both healthy and cancerous, they may have certain side effects, such as the hair loss that is typically associated with chemotherapy. Despite these side effects, these drugs are instrumental in targeting the symptoms of cancer and, sometimes, in treating most symptoms of cancer.

Of course, cancer treatment today not only utilizes chemotherapy but a range of different treatments such as radiation therapy (using radiation to kill cancerous cells), immunotherapy (activating the immune system to fight the cancerous cells), hormonal therapy (using hormones to control the growth of some cells), and surgery to remove the tumor. Scientists are also actively working to develop more effective drugs with fewer side effects. Recent breakthroughs include the Caspase Independent Cell Death (CICD), which kills cancer cells and alerts the immune system every time it does so, thereby activating the immune system to fight off the rest of the cancerous cells. There has also been the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system, which has been the talk of the academic society. Scientists are currently working out a method to utilize the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system in cancer treatment as cancerous cells have an identifier, and scientists can genetically modify viruses to attack only these cells. This method shows great promise.

As evidence has suggested that chemotherapy is not usually completely effective, these methods are often used in conjunction with chemotherapy, or sometimes as an alternative for patients for whom chemotherapy is ineffective. Breast cancer, for instance, is often treated with a mix of radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy.

In summation, the development and refinement of chemotherapy over several years has widely benefitted research into cancer treatment and along with recent scientific efforts, scientists are getting closer to efficaciously treating cancer, and saving more lives.


[1] “Mustard Gas – from the Great War to Frontline Chemotherapy.” Cancer Research UK Science Blog Mustard Gas from the Great War to Frontline Chemotherapy Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[2] “Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy.” Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[3] Osborne, Samuel. “New Cancer Treatment May Be More Effective than Chemotherapy.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 29 Aug. 2017,

[4] Irving, Michael. “CRISPR Gene-Editing Tool Targets Cancer's ‘Command Center.’” New Atlas - New Technology & Science News, New Atlas, 1 May 2017,

[5] “Treatment of Cancer.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2017,

[6] “Chemotherapy.” – Chemistry Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[7] “Treating Breast Cancer.” American Cancer Society,

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