The Cancer Bomb: How Nuclear Sludge Gave Birth to an Experimental Leukemia Drug

It's not your ordinary radiation treatment

The discovery of actinium’s cancer-fighting properties wasn’t the first time that a medicine was born of warfare. The first important breakthrough in the development of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment occurred during World War II. The U.S. Army had stockpiled 100 tons of mustard gas on a ship stationed in an Italian harbor. The ship was bombed and the stockpile exploded; Autopsies of the victims led scientists to suspect the compound’s potency as a cell-killing agent.

When asked to draw a parallel between mustard gas and actinium, Dr. Scheinberg pointed out that many of the most effective cancer treatments have lacked precision; doctors knew that certain chemicals killed cells, and directed the agents at the disease, with limited ability to moderate the effects on healthy tissue.

The chief benefit of actinium is that its short wavelength enables it to attack cancer cells without destroying surrounding tissue. The substance could have huge implications: in Poland and Germany, actinium is being used to treat brain cancer, and in Australia, for use on melanoma patients.

The drug’s development, though, has been complicated by a need for more actinium. While Oak Ridge still has a massive stash of uranium 233, there isn’t funding to extract the actinium.

Later this month, a company called Actinium Pharmaceuticals plans to lead an initial public offering to raise $20 million to complete ongoing human testing on a treatment for acute myeloid leukemia by the end of next year. Dr. Dragan Cicic, the company’s chief operating officer, told The Observer that for a time, API used a cyclotron to produce actinium, but until a drug goes into mass production, the technology is an unwieldy expense.

Aside from scarce actinium supply, another stumbling block has been the key step of binding the cancer-fighting substance to the antibodies, a long process of trial and error. “We’re using the antibodies as guiding missiles to deliver the isotope,” Dr. Cicic told us. “It’s not trivial at all to make a radioactive element peak through a cell.”

For his part, Dr. Scheinberg prefaced his comments by noting that, as the inventor of technologies behind the drug and as an employee of Sloan-Kettering, which owns the patents, he has an interest in seeing the drug find commercial success.

“Acute myeloid leukemia is very difficult to treat right now, so the drug could be very important, especially for adults,” he told us. “As a proof of concept, it could be very important to allow more work on this type of platform to go forward.”

On a recent morning, The Observer visited API’s spartan offices, across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library. We asked company CEO Jack Talley if he had any actinium on hand to show us. “A pharmaceutical company is the last place you’ll find that kind of substance,” he said.

Dr. Mirzadeh, the Oak Ridge scientist charged with milking actinium from its parent materials, said that the would-be miracle drug is invisible to the naked eye, though its radioactive properties produce a fluorescent effect that causes it to glow in the dark.

It’s a light of hope for some cancer patients.

pclark@observer.com