radiotherapy centre - radiotherapy

Was The Effectiveness Of Radiotherapy Found By Accident?

Anyone who steps into a radiotherapy centre will receive an intensive consultation, a carefully planned treatment and guidance throughout its entire duration, benefitting from over a century of research, development and the evolution of advanced techniques.

Some of these developments, such as the pioneering work into stereotactic radiosurgery by Lars Leksell, came from years of painstaking work and the perfectionist mindset required to develop treatment tools for the brain.

However, other developments come as the result of more accidental discoveries, such as the X-ray being found by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895 largely by accident and creating the field of radiology in the process.

The beginnings of radiotherapy are similarly serendipitous, with pioneering scientists discovering the potential therapeutic properties of X-rays and radioactive materials largely by accident.

From Rontgenotherapy To Radiotherapy

Within a year of Mr Rontgen’s discovery, the potential for X-rays to be used not just for diagnosis but for therapy was being explored by a wide variety of doctors in a range of fields.

The very first attempted radiotherapy treatment was by the French doctor Victor Despeignes, who used it to try and treat a 52-year-old man with a tumour said to be the size of a baby’s head.

Mr Despeignes was correct but for the wrong reasons; he believed that cancer was a parasitic infection and since earlier experiments had found that X-rays could kill bacteria, he tried it in a living patient.

The patient was given two 30-minute treatments alongside a cocktail of pain relief medication (morphine, opium and chloroform), a diet of milk and condurango (at the time used to treat stomach illnesses) and artificial serum injections.

This unnamed patient died three weeks later, but the cancerous tumour had shrunk to half of its size and he had felt significantly less pain. Given the other treatments being used, it was unclear whether the radiation had been the primary cause of this at the time, however.

Around the same time, Chicago-based doctor Emil Grubbe allegedly became the first doctor in the United States to use radiation to treat cancer, apparently after a doctor noticed a burn on his hand and suggested that this power could be used to destroy diseased tissue.

Whilst they had their uses in radiotherapy, X-rays at the time were limited in what they could and could not treat, and so early radiologists looked for ways to improve or localise the process, and a discovery by Marie and Pierre Curie provided considerable hope.

Radium In Pocket

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered the principle of radioactivity in uranium, and when the Curies discovered polonium and radium in 1898 it was found that a property that Mr Becquerel believed was only in uranium could be found in other elements as well.

All three people would share the 1903 Nobel Prize for this discovery, but Mr Becquerel would also stumble upon the potential for radioactivity for therapeutic purposes and by extension inventing radiotherapy.

Unlike his initial discovery of radioactivity in uranium, this discovery was made largely by accident. Whilst experimenting, Mr Becquerel would place a tube of radium in the pocket of his waistcoat, where it would stay for several hours before he took it off.

A week later, he went to see dermatologist Ernest Besnier, complaining of severe inflammation of his skin at the same spot where the radium had been kept in his waistcoat pocket.

Mr Besnier believed it was caused by the radium, and after experiments by the Curies confirmed this hypothesis, suggested that it could be used for therapeutic purposes in the same way X-rays had been up to that point.

Whilst it could not be as precisely targeted as more modern radiotherapy techniques, radium was seen as a beneficial treatment compared to X-rays due to its ability to target specific areas that X-rays simply did not possess.

The Curies would ultimately publish 32 separate papers exploring the effects of radioactivity, the most important to the field of radiotherapy being the discovery that tumours and lesions were destroyed faster when exposed to radium than healthy cells.

This principle is at the core of radiotherapy, why it is so effective and why it is still widely used today as a first-line treatment for cancer.

Unfortunately, neither Pierre Curie nor Mr Becquerel would see the true potential of radiotherapy realised in their lifetime.

Mr Curie was tragically killed on 19th April 1906 after being run over by a horse-drawn cart. Mrs Curie would continue his work until she died in 1934. Mr Becquerel would die of a heart attack in 1908.