Many of us remember Marie Curie as a scientist and a Nobel laureate; I do not know how many of us remember Marie Curie as a cancer curer. Her discovery of radium paved the way for the cure of many cancers, most notably the cancer of the cervix. I am one of the few elite and privileged radiotherapists in the world who has seen this with my very eyes.
Let us first find out what Marie curie discovered in her lifelong devotion to career in science.
Manya Sklodowska, that’s how she was called when she was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Both her parents were teachers and hence she knew the value of education early in her life, she took her initial lessons on physics and chemistry with her father and gained some hands on experience of chemical experiments in her uncle’s paint shop and migrated to Paris to study mathematics and physics at the age of 24. This was due to the restrictions imposed by Russians on higher education for polish women in Poland, which was under Russian occupation at that time. After getting the degree in physics and mathematics in 1893, she joined Pierre Curie’s physics lab to do her personal research apart from the teaching responsibility she held at the French University. At that time Pierre was conducting his research on piezoelectric effect on crystals and had constructed an electrometer along with his brother to study the weak electricity. Marie with the aid of this readily available electrometer at her disposal began to study the naturally available electro activity as explained by Professor Henry Becquerel. She began to systematically analyze the uranium and thorium and found ground breaking discovery of Radioactivity. It is this radioactivity, the ability to radiate, which did not depend on the arrangement of the atoms in a molecule, but linked to the interior of the atom itself that is the revolutionary contribution of the physics of radioactivity. She then went on to the systemic extraction of naturally available radium from the ore pitchblende.
In the year 1903 Marie and Pierre Curie were awarded half Nobel Prize for each in Physics, for their research on Radioactivity and subsequently in 1911, she won another Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of radium and Polonium.
Soon after the discovery of Radioactivity (1903) and the extraction of Radium (1911), it was found that radium can interact with human tissue and cause damage to human tissues; the Curies conducted experiments on human tissues to show the radiobiological effect of radium, Pierre Curie had wrapped a sample of radium salts in a thin rubber covering and bound it to his arm for ten hours, then had studied the wound, which resembled a burn, day by day and after 52 days a permanent grey scar remained forever. This was the first radiobiology experiment of its kind, which lead the world to the modern day fractionated radiotherapy for most of our cancers. Following this, many countries in the world started to mass produce radium at the price of USD 100,000 per gram (In 1920) and obviously America lead the rest of the world. Dr Robert Abbe was one of the few doctors, who had a successful association with Marie Curie as early as 1902 when he began his experiment with cancer patients in North America.
One such patient treated by Dr Robert Abbe at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, wrote to Marie about her radium treatment: “What it done for me none but God can tell.” Madam Curie received letters like this all the time. Technically the treatment looked simple but it was highly hazardous. Take a certain quantity of radium, seal it in a glass tube and insert in the area of cancer, one such cancers successfully treated was cancer of the cervix, considering the procedure done at ease.
I did not personally insert radium tubes into anybody’s cervix but I have personally reviewed patients who have been cured of cervical cancer by radium tubes in my follow up clinics in India. The usage of radium tube was withdrawn in almost all parts of the world considering the health hazard for the radiation therapy staff worldwide. The cracking of the radium tube leads to the emission of radon gas which subsequently causes fatal radium pneumonitis (inflammation of the lung tissue). The dangerous procedure requiring holding the radium tube by the radiotherapist using forceps and attempt to introduce the tube in to the cervix thus exposing them and the theater staff to the hazard of radiation eventually eliminated the usage of radium in the cancer treatment.
Under the Ministry of Health Malaysia there existed 4 radium therapy facilities in Ipoh, Johor, Penang and Kuala Lumpur, all of them were withdrawn from services and stored safely at the department of radiotherapy and oncology, General Hospital, Kuala Lumpur. Though we use much more modern equipment and stable isotopes, the essential principle governing this treatment is as old as Marie Curie’s days. The radium was finally eliminated, but it had cured millions of cancer cervix patient’s world over. I have myself seen cervical cancer cured by radium. Marie Curie was such an extraordinary radiation pioneer who perfected the peaceful use of nuclear energy; but was not as popular as Einstein Albert who paved way for the destructive use of Nuclear energy. She eventually succumbed to radium induced leukemia and died on July 4, 1934 at the age of 67 in Paris.
Dr. Prem Shanmugam is a consultant clinical oncologist and lecturer currently serving in Sarawak. He is a firm believer in the importance of education to ensure better quality of life and survival in his cancer patients. Find out more about him at The Team page.
[This article belongs to The Malaysian Medical Gazette. Any republication (online or offline) without written permission from The Malaysian Medical Gazette is prohibited.]