National Geographic : 1958 Sep
The National Geographic Magazine than normal tissue. A few years ago, radio active elements seemed the answer to a cancer crusader's prayer. AEC literature, however, states frankly that their present usefulness in therapy is limited. True, gamma sources have been highly effective as substitutes for X-ray machines (page 335). Radiophosphorus controls poly cythemia vera, an excess of red blood cells, and radio-iodine has benefited thousands suf fering from hyperthyroidism and cancer of the thyroid gland. Generally speaking, how ever, isotope therapy has not been conspicu ously successful. "We haven't made any real inroads into the cancer problem, because in most cases we haven't been able to localize the isotopes in cancerous tissue," explained Dr. John H. Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence heads the Donner Laboratory and Donner Pavilion, medical re search facilities at the University of Cali fornia. The AEC supports these facilities and similar ones at Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, and the University of Chicago. The isotopes-vs -cancer story is not one of unrelieved pessimism; it has its promising aspects. Atom tracers have been used in many ways to follow complicated chemical reactions in blood and body cells, and even to study the manner in which cells divide and multiply. These techniques arm researchers with knowl edge essential to an ultimate understanding of how malignancies occur and spread. Hormones Influence Cancer Growth With unflagging determination, scientists strive for break-throughs in radioisotope therapy. The record may have been disap pointing, but bold new measures are being tried. Scientists have demonstrated that hormones secreted by the pituitary gland-located in the head-contribute to the growth of breast cancer. Since the gland is not essen tial to life, the University of California de stroys it precisely with a cyclotron beam. The University of Chicago accomplishes simi lar results by implanting irradiated yttrium pellets in patients. At Brookhaven persons with brain tumors have been treated by neutron beams from a reactor. Doctors first give each patient an injection of boron salts, which concentrate briefly in the tumor. Boron captures neu trons and discharges powerful alpha rays through the tumor. This technique is ex pected to be more effective with completion of Brookhaven's new medical reactor, which will have special facilities for tumor irradia tion and other experiments in nuclear medi cine. A New Approach to Leukemia Doctors at Oak Ridge use a radical new treatment for leukemia, the blood cancer. It has always been difficult to treat this disease by irradiation because the rays destroy vital bone marrow needed to produce new blood cells. But some patients have been exposed to gamma rays from a cobalt source, and then have received bone injections of marrow with drawn from relatives. The injections act as transplants, replacing irradiated marrow. Patients at the various research centers volunteer, of course, for experimental treat ment, and all must be referred to the hospitals by other institutions. I saw a number of these patients, and well do I remember the poignant resignation on their faces. There was a single, smiling exception: a small boy, the victim of leukemia. He sat in a wheel chair while a nurse rolled him down a corridor. Though the boy's face was wan, it wore a pleased grin, and he scanned with eager attention a booklet telling in comic-strip form the story of peaceful atomic energy. As he turned a page, I glimpsed the title, "Dagwood Splits the Atom." I do not know to what ultimate fate that boy was being wheeled. But he realized the atom might hold hope and renewed health for him, and he was trying to understand its strange forces. Each of us, too, has a stake in the atomic revolution, even though it may not be so direct and vital as that of the little boy. We have crossed the threshold into a new era, as yet dimly perceived. But we know it will shape and change our lives in ways undreamed of today-and there can be no turning back. Swathed in Plastic, Breathing Piped-in Air, a Worker Checks a Hot Cell Before cleanup crews at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can enter, someone has to make sure the room is reasonably safe. This man, seen through three feet of liquid and plate glass, takes a Geiger counter reading. Leaving, he will change clothes and take a shower. Large metal arm in front of him polishes irradiated metal for photomicrographs (page 322). Kodachrome by National Geographic Photographer B. Anthony Stewart © N.G.S.