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Cancer Drugs Give and Take: Janet Cooke-Wright and Alma Levant Hayden

Cancer is the second greatest cause of death worldwide, accounting for 1 in 6 deaths in 2018. Cancer refers to a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce abnormally. These cancerous cells then can start invading and destroying the neighbouring healthy cells and causing organ failures. Cancer can start in any organ with dividing cells — there are more than 200 types of cancer.

There are three main ways to treat cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Surgery is preferred, when possible, to remove affected organs. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancerous cells, while radiotherapy uses X-ray. Nowadays, these treatments are used separately or in combination to eliminate as many cancerous cells as possible to the point of remission.

With various origins and factors that might contribute to the abnormal growth rate (for example hormones, lifestyle, underlying conditions), there is no one cure-all solution to these conditions. Finding the cure for cancer is a complex mission that scientists worldwide have been working on for decades.

Today I want to introduce you to two amazing Black American women scientists who have played great parts in this mission — Jane Cooke Wright and Alma Levant Hayden.

Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Cooke Wright was a successful surgeon and an equally accomplished scientist. Wright (born in New York City in 1919) came from an academic family, with her grandfather and father both being medical doctors. She joined her father at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital and took over as director when he passed away in 1952.

[Janet Cooke Wright. National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Wright is most famously known for her research on chemotherapy agent methotrexate. Chemotherapy was a highly controversial treatment in the post-war 1950s — the idea that war chemical weapons can benefit cancer patients seems preposterous. Research on mustard gas, used in WWI but banned by the Geneva Convention in 1925, was the first to show that pharmacological agents can halt cancer progression.

Her research looked at the effect of various chemotherapy drugs on different cancer types. Wright focused on the agent called methotrexate, an antifolate. This type of agents blocked the production of folic acid needed by cancerous cells to grow. Her research found that methotrexate is particularly suitable for treating breast and skin cancers, pioneering a wide use of this drug. Methotrexate is still commonly used and has been the basis of all the modern development of chemotherapy.

In 1962, she developed a technique in which cancer biopsies taken from patients were grown in the laboratory. This allowed testing for multiple drugs before deciding on the best option to administer to patients. This technique expedited cancer research and drug trials as well as confirmed cancer as a complex group of disease.

Note: This technique of growing cells in the laboratory was developed after the discovery of the “immortal cell line” derived from the Black American woman Henrietta Lacks.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that chemotherapy was widely accepted as an effective cancer treatment. The efficiency of cancer drugs varies across types and even amongst individuals with the same cancer type. The more we understand about cancer, the more we can appreciate how difficult it is to treat. This, however, can also lead to desperation and various unproven or disproven alternative treatments.

Alma Levant Hayden

The chemist Alma Levant Hayden was one of the first Black American scientists ever employed in the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after working for the National Institute of Health in the 1950s.

During Hayden’s time, it is difficult for Black scientists to get promoted to senior positions as senior scientists are often asked to appear in court. Depending on location, having a Black scientist as an expert could’ve jeopardised the court case if it has a racist jury. Hayden was one of the few who managed to push against this antiquated system and progressed through the ranks.

In 1963, Hayden was the branch chief in the Division of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the FDA and was tasked to investigate a drug called Krebiozen.

Krebiozen was developed in the 1940s in Argentina by physician Dr Durovic who brought it into the USA as a potential cancer drug. He claimed that while developing it as a high-pressure medication, he also noticed a shrinkage in tumours in the animals he tested. While a tumour is an abnormal swelling that commonly occurs, it can also be an indication of cancer.

[Diagram Showing Cancer Cells Spreading into Blood Stream. Research UK uploader, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons]

Collaborating with a famous American physician Dr Andrew Ivy, Dr Durovic conducted a clinical trial on 22 patients. They claimed that the results were remarkable, publicising it in a press conference in March 1951. It was an unusual move as the attendees were mostly politicians and science writers instead of other physicians or scientists. No one there was critical enough to question how some of the patients have died “with cancer” (according to the press conference) instead of “of cancer”.

Krebiozen made the headline and was immediately requested by multiple hospitals and institutes to test on their patients. In October 1951, however, ten institutes published their negative results together in a paper to warn others about Krebiozen. This was the first of many negative reports from clinical trials all over the country. This spurred the National Cancer Institute and FDA to request Krebiozen samples to be tested.

[Alma Levant Hayden. NIH photographer, name not known, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Using her expertise in the infrared spectrophotometer, Hayden examined the chemical fingerprint of Krebiozen. Comparing the fingerprint to known substances, Hayden discovered that Krebiozen contained simply creatine and mineral oil. Creatine, an amino acid derivative found in meat, was a common substance that can be easily purchased as laboratory chemicals. It was dissolved in mineral oil, also another common substance distilled from petroleum oil. There was nothing remarkable or cancer-curing about these two substances.

Her finding was confirmed by other independent scientific bodies, leading a court case against Durovic and Ivy for promoting Krebiozen. Hayden testified at court multiple times as an expert, and her finding was reported in US Congressional Record in 1963. Despite this, the complexity of the science led to both men being acquitted.

Krebiozen lost all its reputation as a cancer drug. Many were upset about this as they truly believed that the US scientific bodies conspired against Krebiozen — if it had worked, it could bankrupt the pharmaceutical industry. They refused to believe that the wonder drug was no longer.

Hayden made history as the chemist who debunked Krebiozen. Unfortunately, her life was cut short in 1967 at the age of 40. The cause? Cancer.


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CF Medicine Biography 336: Janet Cooke Wright

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Golomb FM, Cobb JP, Walker DG, Wright JC. In vitro selection of chemotherapeutic agents for perfusion therapy of human cancer. Surgery May 1 1962 (51) (5) 639-644; DOI:https://doi.org/10.5555/uri:pii:0039606062902192

Holland JF. The Krebiozen Story: Is Cancer Quackery Dead? April 17 1967. JAMA (200) (3) 125-130

Kelly J. The doctor said it could cure cancer. The federal chemist proved that it couldn’t. Washington Post August 26 2017.


WHO Cancer Information Page

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