In 2018, an estimated 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer, and most of these patients, at some point, will likely receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment plan. This anti-cancer therapy is not one drug, but a category of drugs: All of them work by entering cells and stopping them from dividing into new cells, with the hope that they will stop tumors from growing until they fall apart and go away. Chemotherapy drugs cause considerable damage to any cells that are actively dividing in the body, leading to severe side effects including nausea, hair loss, and immunosuppression.
For that reason, we often call these drugs poisons. But there’s more truth to this designation than you might think: the oldest class of chemotherapy drugs actually derived from mustard gas, a poison the Germans used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
What do the drugs Percocet, Lipitor, and Wellbutrin have in common? It’s not what they do for you – one’s a pain med, another treats heart disease, and the third helps with depression. They’re not made by the same drug company, nor are they regulated the same way by the government. These drugs couldn’t be more different in the way they work, why they work, and how they’ve impacted our healthcare system. So what is it that they all have in common?
They, like many other drugs, can turn on you and cause you harm if you take them with grapefruit juice.
In the doctor’s office, a little toddler smiles joyfully as the doctor
releases the plunger and withdraws the syringe from his arm. This was the first
of a series of shots that he was scheduled to receive as part of his vaccination
regimen. The doctor applies a bandage to the toddler’s arm, adds the
vaccination to his records, and asks the family if they had any questions
before leaving for the day.
Ironically, despite the horrors of war, armed conflict has a way of advancing medicine. Gruesome injuries sustained on the battlefield provide opportunities for surgeons to experiment and test new approaches for treatment. During World War II for example, blood poisoning, bronchitis, and other infectious diseases contracted by soldiers created a demand for broad spectrum antibiotics, which encouraged British scientists to find new ways to produce penicillin on a mass scale.