Updated: Sep 7
Cancer. Make no mistake. This is the most significant disease that we will come across in our lives. Without a doubt, there is not a simple solution or cure to this disease, it’s a part of us that will exist within us long after we pass. Rather than referring to it as a disease, we can instead portray cancer as the antagonist in most of our stories. That’s why we must understand the how, when, where, what of this evil being that kills more lives than all the wars in our history.
That’s why this story starts in the 1940’s.
Sidney Farber was a pathologist. He didn’t treat patients, but he did experiment in the deep and dark basement he called a lab. It was hidden in the dark depths of the Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. The work he was doing, in contrast, would be a beacon of light for future generations. His primary research area was blood cancer. Leukemia, especially in children, spared no one, and that was precisely why Farber had dedicated his full effort to try different antibiotics (which were the latest and most popular treatments during the time) on his cell cultures. He drew inspiration from an English physician named Lucy Wills. In 1928, she travelled to Bombay to study anemia, and found on a whim that it could be cured by Marmite, a food spread made from yeast extract. What she didn’t know was that the ingredient in this spread that cured the disease was folic acid, an essential component of DNA. She found that if folic acid was given to patients, it could actually generate new blood cells. Farber, with surprise, wondered whether this folic acid could cause blood cells to go back to normal in leukemic children. He administered this treatment on some children in the hospital with leukemia. The results were catastrophic. Folic Acid didn’t cure or even slow tumor growth, in fact, it accelerated it, aiding it in invading blood vessels throughout the body. The doctors in the hospital were horrified and angered, but Farber was deep in thought once again. Could there be something that was the opposite of folate that could inhibit cancer growth?
His failure spurred on his curiosity, but he still had a long way to go.