Ellen Scharaga: History of Cancer Treatments

Ellen Scharaga, the Senior Vice President of Operations at OncoMed Pharmaceutical Services, works with cancer drugs on a daily basis. She presents the following brief overview of how cancer has been treated throughout history.

The first treatment for cancer was surgical removal of the tumor, although it was a crude and risky treatment until the development of anesthesia in the 19th century. Cancer surgeries experienced great leaps once anesthesia was introduced, although when it was discovered that cancer had the ability to spread, doctors began to look into other options.

Radiation was introduced around the turn of the 20th century, with studies showing that small, daily doses could increase the patient’s prognosis for improvement. These early treatments were crude and harmful to nearby tissues, including to the doctors administering them. Fortunately, recent technological innovations have led to much more precise machines.

Chemotherapy, perhaps the most well-known cancer treatment, is also the newest. It was first discovered in World War II when the Army realized that nitrogen mustard, a defense against mustard gas, also had a destructive effect on human tissue – specifically, that it could destroy bone marrow and lymph nodes. This prompted the theory that the chemical might be of use to patients suffering from lymphoma. Soon a drug called methotrexate was seen to have a palliative effect on leukemia in children. As a result of these two developments, The Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center was launched in 1955. Although widely unpopular at first, criticism began to wane in the face of long-term and, in some cases, permanent remission resulting from chemotherapy treatments.

Current developments in chemotherapy focus on reducing the treatment’s side effects, primarily through the development of more targeted drugs that seek out cancer cells, leaving the nearby healthy tissues unharmed.