Med student writes about mustard gas, its connection to chemotherapy

December 31, 2014 | Features, Research, UToday, Medicine and Life Sciences
By Samantha Watson

Though mustard gas was introduced as a chemical weapon during World War I, it later became the foundation of modern chemotherapy.



That’s what Sean Gallagher, a University of Toledo fourth-year medical student, wrote about in a recent publication in the World Journal of Clinical Urology.

His article, “From the Battlefield to the Bladder: The Development of thioTEPA,” takes a look at how the science behind mustard gas evolved into modern treatments of cancer. He specifically looks at thioTEPA, a molecule that was developed out of mustard gas research and is used in today’s treatment of bladder cancer.

When mustard gas first appeared in war, military physicians had seen nothing like it, so they began recording everything they could about its effects. Later researchers analyzed the information and noticed that those who were exposed to the gas had low blood cell counts. They hypothesized that because patients with cancer usually have high blood cell counts, the use of the chemical could be a beneficial treatment.

It was this discovery that led to the testing of these chemicals on cancer patients, and later the development and use of similar compounds that had different effects. Some of the compounds developed then are still used in modern chemotherapy.

“Their work really gave birth to a whole new field of research,” Gallagher said.

Though Gallagher has always had an interest in history, his article was something he didn’t expect to be able to do in medical school.

“It’s really cool that, being in the medical field, I can still pursue my interest in history,” Gallagher said. “I thought that was something I gave up, or at least that I’d be relegated to reading books.”

The door opened for Gallagher when he joined UT’s History of Medicine Club, led by Dr. Steven Selman, professor and chair of urology. Each student in the club does a research project and an informal presentation, but more often than not, that research becomes a publication — as was the case with Gallagher.

“It was a neat process because it was a bit different than more traditional health science research,” Gallagher said. “Really, you’re just trying to learn the story about how someone else made a big breakthrough.”

Gallagher said he really enjoyed reviewing the other articles, which took him two years to compile and draw conclusions from.

“It was a really fun process,” he said. “Taking that chemical weapon and seeing it turn into something useful is kind of neat.”

Gallagher is finishing his last year of medical school at UT and will be matched with a residency in March. His chosen field is pediatrics, and his wife, Mae, another fourth-year medical student at the University, plans to go into family medicine.

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