“Bench-to-Bedside Research”

Serendipity is a key driver of innovation in health care and in entrepreneurship. The book discussed below documents a key episode of serendipity.

(p. A17) For any cancer patient who has experienced the gruesome side effects of chemotherapy, it may not be surprising to learn that anti-cancer drugs have their origins in the toxic chemical agents designed for warfare. In “The Great Secret,” Jennet Conant describes how researchers stumbled on the therapeutic value of the same compounds that wreaked havoc in two world wars. The discovery revolutionized cancer treatment, but in Ms. Conant’s telling a story of scientific triumph is clouded by a parallel tale of official cover-ups and ethical quagmires.

Chemical agents were first deployed in World War I by the Germans, who had perfected mustard gas: It inflicted horrifying damage on the skin, eyes and internal organs. By World War II, the Allies had their own stockpiles of it. The official policy was to stick to the Geneva protocols and avoid their use except in retaliation for a first attack. Thus supplies of chemical weapons were sent to Europe in case Germany made the first move.

That plan went horribly wrong in Bari, Italy, on Dec. 2, 1943, when German planes bombed the Allied port, sinking 17 ships and killing more than 1,000 servicemen and hundreds of civilians.

. . .

Ms. Conant ultimately shifts gears to the postwar medical research—at what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering and other institutions—that led to a generation of cancer drugs. The research saga has been covered in other works, notably Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies” (2010), but she does a creditable job of pulling the highlights together and keeping her focus on the less-celebrated figures who came out of the chemical-warfare complex.

The most fascinating of them is Col. Cornelius Rhoads, a brilliant but arrogant and overzealous scientist who fully grasped the importance of Dr. Stewart’s findings. Although his career ended in ignominy because of a rant against Puerto Ricans and allegations—stoked by a jesting comment he had made—that he had deliberately given his Puerto Rican patients cancer, Rhoads was an early champion of fighting cancer with nitrogen mustards. And he pioneered the concept of “bench-to-bedside research,” which allows doctors to draw constantly on new clinical evidence to treat patients.

For the full review, see:

Laura Landro. “BOOKSHELF; Life-Saving Toxicity.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, September 10, 2020): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 9, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Great Secret’ Review: Life-Saving Toxicity.”)

The book under review is:

Conant, Jennet. The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

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