One of the worst dental decisions I ever made involved brushing my teeth with an electric toothbrush and activated charcoal powder…in my white bathroom.
Dentistry fads are always tempting. From oil pulling to teeth whitening strips, even the savviest among us has fallen prey in our quest for a radiant smile. But there was a time in history when that desire was taken a little too literally.
If you were shopping for radioactive toothpaste in the 1920s, you had not one but two options. A German company was producing Doramad, a toothpaste with thorium as the active ingredient. Meanwhile, if combo radiation products were more your thing, a Paris-based radioactive cosmetics line called Tho-Radia was also offering toothpaste.
This all started in the late 19th century/early 20th century, when radioactivity and X-rays were discovered in parallel. Science was captivated by these new technologies, and it wasn’t long before both found widespread application in medicine.
X-ray machines were put to use during World War I, to find embedded bullets and diagnose broken bones, and also used as a surface therapy for skin diseases. Science quickly recognized radium’s potential in oncology through early experiments against various cancers of the throat, breast and skin.
But the outpouring of enthusiasm for these new ‘medical miracles’ — radium in particular — quickly leaked out of the mouth of the scientific community and dribbled down the chin of high society.
In addition to radium toothpaste, there were food products containing radium, including chocolate bars, water and bread. Some lucky consumers owned the bedside ‘Revigator,’ a ceramic water crock lined with uranium and radium. For the truly fearless, there were radium suppositories and even the ‘Radiendocrinator’— a radium-coated card worn inside the underwear at night to treat impotence.
In the early 1920s, a NJ dentist began noticing an abundance of dental problems in young factory workers and rightfully became suspicious when a woman’s jawbone broke off in his hand. The dentist discovered that his patients had all worked for the U.S. Radium Corp., painting watch dials with the company’s ‘Undark’ luminous paint and licking their brushes to keep the bristles aligned.
By 1927, more than 50 of these now-famed ‘radium girls’ had died as a result of radium paint poisoning, as did the inventor of Undark paint. In 1932, a well-known amateur golfer died horrifically after becoming obsessed with drinking radium water, followed by the inventor of the Radiendocrinator, who died from bladder cancer. Radiation tragedy wasn’t limited to those drinking the radiation flavored Kool-Aid, either — a staggering amount of scientists and their assistants also suffered the ills of radiation.
Undeterred, science continued to pursue the use of radiation in medical care, slowly filling in the large gaps in understanding.
As you will read in this month’s cover story, when the first two antibody-directed radiotherapies — Zevalin and Bexxar — won FDA approval, it seemed like targeted radiation had finally cut its teeth in therapeutics. But the drugs failed on the market, leaving pharma manufacturers with a bitter taste in their mouths when it came to radiopharmaceuticals.
But today’s pharma industry has finally worked through the aches of radiopharma past. Armed with a better understanding of manufacturing and logistics, the sector is filled with activity. As these experience-stacked companies bear down, we may soon see pharma’s next crowning achievement in cancer care.