The Cure: A Story of Cancer and Politics from the Annals of the Cold War / Edition 2

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Did America try to steal Soviet "cancer secrets"? And how could a cancer cure turn into a "biological atomic bomb"? Nikolai Krementsov's compelling tale of cancer and politics is the story of a husband-and-wife team who developed a promising anticancer treatment in Stalin's Russia, only to see their discovery entangled in Cold War rivalries, ideological conflict, and scientific turf wars.

In 1946, Nina Kliueva and Grigorii Roskin announced the discovery of a preparation able to "dissolve" tumors in mice. Preliminary clinical trials suggested that KR, named after its developers, might work in humans as well. Media hype surrounding KR prompted the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union to seek U.S.-Soviet cooperation in perfecting the possible cure. But the escalating Cold War gave this American interest a double edge. Though it helped Kliueva and Roskin solicit impressive research support from the Soviet leadership, including Stalin, it also thrust the couple into the center of an ideological confrontation between the superpowers. Accused of divulging "state secrets" to America, the couple were put on a show trial, and their "antipatriotic sins" were condemned in Soviet stage and film productions.

Parlaying their notoriety into increased funding, Kliueva and Roskin continued their research, but envious colleagues discredited their work and took over their institute. For years, work on KR languished and ceased entirely with the deaths of Kliueva and Roskin. But recently, the Russian press reported that work on KR has begun again, reopening this illuminating story of the intersection among Cold War politics, personal ideals, and biomedical research.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226452852
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 277
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nikolai Krementsov is a senior researcher at the Institute of the History of Science and Technology, St. Petersburg Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences.

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Read an Excerpt

The Cure: a Story of Cancer and Politics from the Annals of the Cold War

By N. L. Krementsov

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 N. L. Krementsov
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226452840

Act I - Discovery

Tumors have been known since antiquity. The very word we use --"cancer"--is the Latin translation of a Greek word, karkinos (crab), supposedly introduced by Hippocrates to describe a tumor's appearance. The systematic scientific study of tumors, however, began only in the mid-nineteenth century, with the advent of cell theory. At that time, the cell became construed as a universal unit of life, and all organisms came to be seen as composed of cells. The simplest creatures--microbes--were single cells living by themselves, while a human body included the billions upon billions of cells that formed its various organs and tissues. In 1838, Johannes Muller first described the cellular structure of tumors. Anatomists and pathologists began studying various tumors under the microscope and soon discovered that tumor cells derive from normal cells, but often differ from them greatly in shape and size. By 1858, Rudolf Virchow had formulated his "cellular pathology" and had established the cell as the focus of tumor growth. These works paved the way for creating a nomenclature based on a tumor's origin: those growing from epithelial tissues (skin, in-testines, lungs) were "carcinomas"; those derivingfrom connective tissues (cartilage, bones) were "sarcomas." Pathologists also noted that quite often a tumor continued to grow, spread-ing into other parts of the body (forming secondary tumors, or "metastases") and eventually killing the organism; such tumors were called "malignant." Certain tumors, however, did not spread through the body; they were "benign." These early studies were based largely on the observation of tumors in human patients and greatly contributed to the establishment of "cancer science" (oncology) as a clinical medical field.

Around the turn of the century, cancer studies received a new impetus, becoming a laboratory discipline. The emerging experimental biology with its numerous subdivisions --"cell science" (cytology), "tissue science" (histology), "growth science" (embryology), and "hereditary science" (genetics)--came to be seen as key to understanding the mystery of life and death. A new assault on the old scourge was led not by clinicians, but by experimental biologists--cytologists, histologists, embryologists, and geneticists.

The experimental approach brought new techniques and opened new venues of investigation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, several scientists, most notably Carl O. Jensen in Denmark, Leo Loeb in the United States, and Paul Ehrlich in Germany, demonstrated that tumors could be transplanted from one experimental animal to another. Soon particular strains of tumors became standardized tools for experimental cancer studies throughout the world. These were usually named after their discoverers, such as the Ehrlich carcinoma in mice, the Jensen sarcoma in rats, the Brown-Pearce carcinoma in rabbits, and the Rous sarcoma in chickens.

Laboratory studies have provided the basis for a new understanding of cancer as an uncontrolled multiplication of cells. In the late nineteenth century, embryologists had demonstrated that every complex organism, with all of its billions of specialized cells, develops from a single fertilized egg, but the exact mechanisms of this process, commonly known as growth, remained a mystery. Histological studies, on the other hand, had shown that many cells in an adult organism continue to multiply in an orderly fashion long after it has reached maturity, replacing old cells with new ones. Transplantation experiments promoted considerable interest in the comparative analysis of normal and malignant growth. Tumors began to be seen as the result of a breakdown in the normal process of cell multiplication: cells that were supposed to divide only at a certain time and at a certain rate proliferated uncontrollably, producing a tumor. In order to find the cause of such irregularities, cytologists began detailed comparative studies of normal and malignant cells. Other experimentalists attempted to induce tumors by applying various physical and chemical agents to normal tissues. In 1915, two Japanese investigators, Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and Koichi Ichikawa, succeeded in producing a tumor in the laboratory: they applied coal tar to rabbits' ears and observed the appearance of skin carcinoma. This opened a new field in cancer research: studies of chemical substances that induce tumors (carcinogens) and their effects on cells and tissues.

The rapid advance of experimental biology in uncovering the mysteries of basic life processes--cell multiplication, tissue development, growth, and heredity--produced an euphoric vision: science could control life and death. Captivated by this vision, many scientists around the world began to apply methods and techniques of experimental biology to studying various medical problems. They believed that experimental techniques could provide them with means to improve dramatically the well-being of humanity, and maybe even fulfill its old dream of immortality.

As elsewhere in the world, in Russia experimental biology began to develop quickly at the turn of the century. One man was principally responsible for its advance--an assistant professor at Moscow University, Nikolai Kol'tsov. A brilliant experimenter and theoretician, as well as an excellent teacher and administrator, Kol'tsov was one of the most energetic proponents of the new biology in Russia. His interests focused on the cell--its form and structure, its origin and development, its function and reproduction. He laid the groundwork for the development of experimental cytology, histology, embryology, and genetics in Russia, creating a solid institutional foundation for his research by establishing several laboratories in Moscow. In 1908, Russia's first private university--the Shaniavskii Moscow City People's University (named after its sponsor, the rich industrialist Alfons Shaniavskii)--became his principal base. Here Kol'tsov created a large laboratory and organized a special course on what he called "experimental zoology." This course, entitled the "Big Practicum," included not only lectures, but also a large number of laboratory exercises and experiments that students were required to perform under the guidance of their teacher and his assistants. Kol'tsov recruited and trained a group of bright young researchers, including cytologist Grigorii Roskin, geneticist Aleksandr Serebrovskii, hydrobiologist Sergei Skadovskii, and embryologist Mikhail Zavadovskii--a group that would define the development of these disciplines in Russia for years to come. In late 1916, Kol'tsov organized the Institute of Experimental Biology in Moscow and, together with his pupils, launched a broad research program that encompassed numerous branches of the new biology, ranging from cytology to zoopsychology.

In their individual fields of study, each of Kol'tsov's students carried on their teacher's vision of experimental biology as a powerful instrument in solving the mysteries of life. Given the scope of Kol'tsov's program and the rapid advance of experimental cancer research, it was almost inevitable that one of his students would embark on the quest to solve the puzzles of cancer. It was cytologist Grigorii Roskin who undertook this mission.

Roskin: A Man and His Microscope

Grigorii Roskin's path to experimental biology was in many ways typical. He was born on July 25, 1892, into a well-to-do Jewish family: his father served as an official at the City Court Office, and his mother took care of the family. In 1900, at age eight, Grigorii began his education. It was difficult for a Jewish boy to enter state secondary schools, particularly gymnasiums, so Grigorii's father enrolled him in a private school. He graduated in 1908, but his diploma barred him from becoming a student at Moscow University, which only accepted gymnasium graduates. Besides, there was an admission quota: the rules allowed only 3 percent of the students of state universities to be Jewish. So Grigorii entered the Institute of Commerce, a public institution founded in 1906 by the Society for Disseminating Commercial Knowledge. At first, he studied in the School of Economics, but after two years transferred to the School of Technology.

This change was prompted by his growing interest in zoology, more precisely, protozoology or protistology--the science of microscopic animals, "protozoa" or "protists." This interest probably had its roots in his childhood. In the 1900s, microscopes became teachers' favorite tools in the natural history courses at Russian secondary schools; many pupils were intrigued by the exotic world one could discover in a lump of soil or in a drop of water from a nearby pond. Unlike many other children, whose fascination with the microscope passed as quickly as the measles, Grigorii's passion became chronic. He clearly preferred studying the universe of miniature creatures visible under the microscope to studying the world of human economic relations.

Life often favors passions. In 1908, just as Grigorii was finishing his secondary education, an opportunity to fulfill his wish to study protozoa presented itself: Shaniavskii University opened its doors to everyone with a secondary education, without regard to religion, sex, or nationality. So Grigorii became a student in the university's division of natural history. Here he met the man who became his teacher, patron, and model for life-- Nikolai Kol'tsov. Under Kol'tsov's guidance, Grigorii's childhood interest in protozoa was transformed into a lifelong passion for research on cytology, histology, and the cell.

Despite his deep involvement with zoology, Grigorii continued his studies at the Institute of Commerce, at his father's insistence--a stable business career no doubt seemed preferable to the uncertainties of science. Grigorii's passion was difficult to reconcile with his father's disposition, but they found a compromise. In late 1909, two specialists in soil and agricultural microbiology, Nikolai Khudiakov and Iakov Nikitinskii, opened a new course at the School of Technology, and a year later, Grigorii began his specialization in what today would be called "applied microbiology."

It was not easy to study simultaneously at two institutions. The curricula at Shaniavskii University and the Institute of Commerce, despite some overlap in the basic science program, differed significantly. Each institution required about thirty courses for graduation. Fortunately, classes at the Institute of Commerce were held in the morning and those at Shaniavskii University in the evening; besides, the Institute of Commerce allowed its students to take unlimited leaves of absence. So Grigorii managed to combine his institute and university studies successfully.

In the spring of 1912, Grigorii graduated from Shaniavskii University, and in the autumn, as was customary at the time, he went abroad. For a year, he studied in France at the University of Montpellier with the eminent protozoologist August Duboscque, who, as he later recalled, "greatly influenced me by his love for protozoa, by his hard work, and by his demanding attitude toward scientific research." (Some fifteen years later, Grigorii would name a new species of protozoa--Pinaciocystis dubosqi--in his teacher's honor.) At the end of 1913, Grigorii returned to Shaniavskii University in Moscow to become Kol'tsov's assistant.

Soon after Grigorii's return to Russia, World War I began. But it did not interrupt his work: as a student at the Institute of Commerce, he was exempt from mobilization into the army. He spent the years of World War I in Kol'tsov's lab. "I always gratefully recall the years spent at Shaniavskii University, where a wonderful scientific atmosphere reigned," Grigorii later noted. Here he completed his first scientific work on the internal structure of a carnivorous protozoan, Stentor, and the morphology of the muscle-like elements responsible for its movements. The work was published in the university's bulletin in 1915, and Grigorii proudly presented it to his father. A year later, in 1916, in recognition of his accomplishments, the university's scientific council awarded Grigorii a stipend "for preparing for the title of professor"--what we would call graduate studies. That same year, Kol'tsov created the Institute of Experimental Biology on private endowments, and Grigorii began working there as his assistant. It seemed that Grigorii's life course was set.

However, keeping to that course proved difficult: the very next year, 1917, brought about a total transformation of his homeland. In February, the three-hundred-year-old dynasty of the Romanovs gave way to a liberal provisional government that was supposed to assure Russia's transition to democratic rule. Then, in early November, the radical faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party--the Bolsheviks--effected a coup d'e´tat that was followed almost immediately by the outbreak of civil war. In early spring 1918, the new Bolshevik government moved from Petrograd to Moscow, 10 which thus became the capital of the newly established Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The Bolsheviks adopted a policy called "War Communism": they nationalized industry, seized agricultural production, abolished money, and took over all scientific and educational institutions.

Despite these cataclysmic changes, Grigorii's life remained remarkably untouched, and he had his teacher to thank for that. The "nationalization" of scientific and educational institutions liquidated the private endowments that Kol'tsov had been using to establish and maintain both his laboratory at Shaniavskii University and his Institute of Experimental Biology, but he was able to win support for his institutions from the new Bolshevik government, specifically the Commissariat of Public Health (Narkomzdrav). He thus secured the survival of his group through the terrible years of the civil war, providing for his pupils not only jobs and food rations, but also scientific literature and equipment.

In late spring 1918, Grigorii graduated from the Institute of Commerce with a degree in engineering, and in August Kol'tsov got him a job lecturing on zoology at the Second Moscow University. Also in 1918, Grigorii's alma mater--Shaniavskii University--was merged with Moscow University; the next autumn, Grigorii began working in its biology department. Here Kol'tsov recreated the Big Practicum in experimental zoology, which became Grigorii's responsibility. Of course, the material conditions of Grigorii's life under War Communism were terrible: there were no goods, fuel, or electricity. The food rations distributed by the government were often barely enough to sustain life. During this period, he often slept in the lab overnight. But despite all these difficulties, Kol'tsov and his pupils continued their work as best they could.

With the end of the civil war, work conditions were much improved. In spring 1921, the Bolsheviks abandoned War Communism and introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which abolished forced requisitions and restored money and the market. Although state control over key industries and banking was preserved, the Bolsheviks partially restored private property in trade and the production of consumer goods. NEP proved effective in reviving the economy: the currency stabilized, the market was restored, transport and industry recovered, and agricultural production increased. At the end of 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in the territories of the former Russian Empire. With revival of the economy, Kol'tsov's group, Roskin among them, launched broad research in experimental biology.

By 1922, Grigorii Roskin had become an accomplished, hardworking, and methodical scientist. He had developed his own style of work, carefully planning what he had to read, write, and do in a given period of time. He kept these written plans, tracking what had been completed, what he had been unable to accomplish and why, and what should be done about this or that particular item in the future. He often reviewed and annotated his previous thoughts and plans, noting what had been proved incorrect or unfruitful and what seemed worth pursuing.


Excerpted from The Cure: a Story of Cancer and Politics from the Annals of the Cold War by N. L. Krementsov Copyright © 2002 by N. L. Krementsov. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Cast of Characters
Act I. Discovery
Roskin: A Man and His Microscope
A Discovery
A Scientist at Work
Act II. Innovation
Kliueva: Making of a Bacteriologist
Research and Development
Boy Meets Girl
Act III. War
The War and Soviet Medicine
Veber's Ploy
Act IV. Politics
The American Ambassador
KR Comes to the New World
Between Worlds
Act V. Ideology
The Cold War
The Honor Court
The Trial
The KR Affair
Act VI. Culture
On Stage: Alien Shadow
On Screen: The Court of Honor
Fiction and Reality
Act VII. Ambitions
Building the Lab
Turf Wars
Competitive Exclusion
Act VIII. Ideas
KR on Trial
Between Bench and Bedside
"Trypanosa" and "Cruzin"
List of Abbreviations

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