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Who discovered chemotherapy?

The first chemotherapy drugs to be used on patients were based on a poisonous gas called nitrogen mustard. War exposed soldiers to nitrogen mustard and doctors found that their bone marrows and lymph nodes had been affected. The cells in the bone marrow and lymph nodes had been reduced.

In 1946 two scientists called Gilman and Philips published a article on the chemical compounds related to this gas. Further work showed that these drugs could cause lymphomas to shrink, but the drugs also caused toxic side effects to the digestive system and the blood and bone marrow. These drugs became the first to be used by doctors to treat cancer.

In 1947 another research doctor called Farber published data on another group of chemotherapy drugs called antifolates. It was known from research that folic acid caused leukaemia cells to increase. So drugs were created that blocked the cell's use of folic acid. This led to the development of methotrexate in 1949. This drug was first used to treat leukaemia.

Throughout the 1950's and 60's more and more chemotherapy drugs were developed. The 1960's are recognised to be the decade when chemotherapy treatment became widely used and rapidly changed the outlook (prognosis) of leukaemias and lymphomas. Before chemotherapy was developed leukaemia and lymphoma were always fatal. Now many people are cured.

Research into the use of chemotherapy and development of new drugs has continued ever since. Now there are more than 90 different drugs in common use and more are being developed all the time. Doctors and scientists research ways to make the treatment less toxic and minimise side effects as well as finding new ways to actually treat cancer.

Many of the chemotherapy drugs in use today were developed from natural substances found in plants and elsewhere. For example, vincristine and the related drugs vinblastine and vinorelbine originate from the Madagascar periwinkle – a tiny pink wild flower. Taxol and taxotere were both developed from the yew tree.

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Updated: 25 April 2013