Marie Curie and the continued development of radiotherapy

Marie curie working in her laboratory alongside husband Pierre
Seen here with her husband, Pierre Curie, Marie worked tirelessly in their laboratory to discover radium. Source: Wellcome Images (via Wikimedia Commons)
A review into the famous scientist Marie Curie's work on radioactivity and a look ahead into how her work is being used by researchers today.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

Marie Curie is arguably one of the most famous scientists of all time. She is a household name, not only for her research but also thanks to her association with the Marie Curie charity and most recently, with the blockbuster 2020 film Radioactive. The film looks at the life of Marie Sklodowska-Curie and the research leading her to win two Nobel prizes. I must admit despite being a scientist myself, I learnt a lot from the film and have since chosen to look into her work more for this month’s feature.

 Marie Curie was Polish and moved to France for her research, after being barred from studying in Poland because she was a woman. She was a physicist and moved to Paris after an opportunity arose for her to study a doctorate there. She was then catapulted into fame after discovering two new elements with her husband Pierre Curie; their discovery of polonium and radium and their unusual behaviour, which she defined as radioactivity, shocked the scientific community. This discovery led to Curie being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. She then won this again in 1911 after creating a way to measure radioactivity. 

 After these discoveries Curie changed direction in order to find a way to use what she had found; initially working to diagnose injuries with mobile X-ray units in the First World War. She invested fully in the war effort and even tried to give away her Nobel medals, but the bank refused.

It was not long after her discovery that people began using radioactivity to treat cancer, showing that exposing cells to radioactive elements caused them to shrink.

Radiation therapy uses the waves given off by radioactive elements to damage and destroy cancer cells. Radiation works specifically by making small breaks in the DNA of cancer cells, meaning they are no longer able to divide and replicate. 

Radiation poisoning is when the body’s own cells are exposed to high levels of radioactive waves, causing their DNA structure to change. If the body’s own cells cannot divide and replicate they die and when this occurs in vital organs and at high levels, like in the case of Marie Curie, the patient is diagnosed with radiation poisoning. Overexposure to radiation can also lead to cancers, due to the DNA damage it causes.

 It is also important to recognise the sacrifice Marie Curie made for her work. Now, the risks of radioactivity exposure are well known, and hospitals and labs work hard to control exposure to these elements. However, at the time Curie was working this was not known, meaning radioactive exposure eventually led to her death by radiation poisoning in 1934. The Curie’s worked so closely with a material called pitchblende (which they used to extract the uranium and radium from) that it is said that even now Curie’s books are too dangerous to touch due to their exposure levels.

 Nowadays, radiation therapy is not only safe but is common practice in cancer treatment with around one in three patients receiving it. Despite looking very different now due to technological advances, it is undeniably linked to that first discovery by Curie. In fact, in France radiotherapy is named ‘Curietherapy” in tribute to her.

 Despite the many challenges Curie faced in her life – both as an immigrant, a female scientist and a rebel for the time – she remained focused on science and her work. This is especially seen in her famous quote:

 “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

The journey into radiotherapy is far from over, with research now focusing on the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) to radiotherapy treatments. The charity Cancer Research UK has invested £56 million to explore the links between these two, with the hope of accelerating advancements in the field.

 Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said:

“Radiotherapy is a cornerstone of cancer medicine, with around three in 10 patients receiving it as part of their primary treatment. The launch of our network marks a new era of radiotherapy research in the UK. Scientists will combine advances in our understanding of cancer biology with cutting-edge technology to make this treatment more precise and effective than ever before.”

 The project will focus on new techniques that deliver radiotherapy using AI, as well as radiotherapy-drug combinations and ways to minimise the long-term effects of the treatment.

One specific researcher working for Cancer Research UK is Dr Emma Harris at The Institute for Cancer Research in London. Her work with radiotherapy hopes to make the delivery to patients more efficient so that the rays are more precisely targeted onto cancerous cells. “Radiotherapy can be targeted to a specific area, but sometimes internal organs can move, such as when the patient breathes. We want to be  [able to] develop a way to see where the tumour moves and move the radiotherapy beams to stay with the tumour” says Harris. Being able to increase the efficiency of the treatment may not only increase the benefits but may also decrease the side effects experienced by patients. Her goal of guiding radiotherapy more efficiently has been titled by Cancer Research UK as “teaching an old dog new tricks”.

Another clinical trial underway is being run by Professor Emma Hall at the Institute of Cancer Research. Hall is looking at the combination of treatments used for patients and whether some medications can increase the efficiency of radiotherapy. It is hoped that an increased efficiency would reduce the amount of healthy tissue that is damaged and, as a result of this, that the side effects would be reduced.

 There are many different clinical trials underway for improving the use of radiotherapy that are running alongside the projects by Cancer Research UK. It is amazing to see how far scientific progress has come since that first radioactive discovery by Curie just over one hundred years ago. 

 Radiotherapy, or Curietherapy to the French, is a well-established treatment option for cancer patients and with increasing research and understanding is likely to be used more and more in the future.


Science and Technology Holly Giles

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