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Russian Historian Shares Grim Lessons of Cold War Cancer Research Politics

Eastman, Peggy

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000295173.33651.47

BETHESDA, MD—Can science and politics ever really be separated? The answer is no, says Dr. Nikolai Krementsov, Senior Researcher in the History of Science at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.



Speaking here at the National Library of Medicine, Dr. Krementsov, who holds the Russian equivalent of a PhD, presented a chilling tale of Cold War politics, turf battles, and cancer research. Currently a visiting scholar in the Library's History of Medicine Division, he has published widely on the history of medicine and science in 20th century Russia.

Although the Cold War is over, Dr. Krementsov said the lessons he has learned from his historical medical research still prevail.

“You can't diverge science from politics or state funding,” he said. “Nowadays big science could not exist without a lot of money. Money is coming from somewhere, and with that comes influences, interests, and all kinds of other things. To consider them separate from science—I don't think it's productive. They're part of what is called science.”

Dr. Krementsov's cautionary tale begins back in 1946, when Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith— former chief of staff to Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower—took a new assignment in Moscow as US ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Gen. Smith had been on the job for only three days when he saw an urgent cable on an Associated Press story about a new treatment for cancer discovered in Moscow by microbiologist Dr. Nina Kliueva and her husband, cytologist Dr. Grigorii Roskin.

Besieged by heartbreaking appeals from US cancer patients and their relatives, Gen. Smith learned that the new remedy was called preparation KR, or simply KR, and was a toxic serum made from a South American parasite—Trypanosoma cruzi—which causes Chagas disease.

Dr. Krementsov said that Drs. Kliueva and Roskin called their remedy “biotherapy”—the use of biological agents as opposed to drugs against cancerous tumors. In an era seduced by the promise of antibiotics, KR looked as if it might have the potential to be the “penicillin of cancer.”

Russia was an ally of the United States in World War II, and thus it was natural that Gen. Smith should try to arrange for a collaborative project on KR between US and Russian scientists, Dr. Krementsov noted. But his plan to do exactly that failed utterly due to the politics of the nascent Cold War, which was then gaining momentum.

When KR was brought to the attention of Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party, cancer research entered the realm of ideology and turf wars, Dr. Krementsov said. Ultimately, sadly, “Kliueva and Roskin's research was discredited and their discovery seemed destined to be forgotten, as but one among countless failed attempts to find a cancer cure.”

The work on KR was based on solid research in laboratory animals and a few patients with inoperable cancer done largely by Dr. Roskin before his marriage, Dr. Krementsov explained. By the end of 1939, Dr. Roskin had published extensively on KR, but World War II interrupted his research.

Then in March 1946, his wife—a vaccine specialist who had joined Dr. Roskin's research team after their marriage—delivered a report on their work to the governing body (the presidium) of the Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow. It was news of that report that triggered the heartbreaking pleas of western patients for a cancer cure, Dr. Krementsov said.

Members of the academy's presidium took notice. Dr. Krementsov noted that one remarked, “The experiments speak for themselves. Today it is still too early to say that the final aim has been achieved, but nevertheless the facts are highly gratifying.”

Stalin also found the work on KR highly gratifying, for his own reasons. Dr. Krementsov noted that after the United States detonated an atom bomb, the Soviet race to catch up technologically and scientifically was on.

“With the detonation of an atomic bomb by the United States in August 1945, scientific achievements acquired unprecedented strategic and symbolic significance in the USSR,” Dr. Krementsov remarked. The Soviet discovery of a cancer cure would have been a direct answer to Stalin's directive to Soviet scientists to overtake westerners in scientific discovery. “The Cold War created this competitive atmosphere,” said the visiting scholar.

For a while, Drs. Kliueva and Roskin were treated royally; the Soviet Politburo spent almost 20 million rubles to create a huge, secret institution—the Laboratory for Cancer Biotherapy—for research on KR. By 1949, Dr. Krementsov said, the scientists had published a seven-volume monograph on their work, entitled “The Regressive Development of Malignant Tumors under the Influence of Microbial Factors.”

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Large Scale, Long Period

“KR was one of the first anticancer preparations ever tested clinically on a relatively large scale and for a relative long period,” Dr. Krementsov said. “In the late 1940s, there were no established protocols anywhere for such tests in oncology. They would be developed nearly a decade later.”

Over the course of four years, some 160 cancer patients were treated with KR; and while some patients responded well, the results were irregular and unpredictable.

The KR scientists' favor with the Soviet government waned. In October 1951, Dr. Krementsov related, the Politburo fired Drs. Kliueva and Roskin, and closed down their laboratory on the grounds that KR “is ineffective both at curing and preventing the development of malignant tumors.”

The laboratory's closing was triggered by the Academy of Medical Sciences—the august body which had been so enthusiastic about KR just five years earlier.

Why? “However institutionally well structured and organized Soviet oncology was as a clinical specialty, as a field of scientific inquiry it was in utter chaos,” Dr. Krementsov said. Not all members of the oncology establishment were pleased “with the appearance of a new competitor” backed by the Politburo.

In a classic dispute between bench and bedside, some oncologists resented the KR bench scientists because they had had little experience with patients in a clinic.

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Attempts to Steal Credit, Seize Control

In this atmosphere of political and scientific competition heightened by Stalin's ambition, some researchers had attempted to steal the credit for KR. Others, greedy for fame, had tried to seize control over the institution set up specifically for Drs. Kliueva and Roskin.

“It was this last group that initiated a fierce turf war that ultimately led to the abandonment of KR research,” Dr. Krementsov said. In short, Drs. Kliueva and Roskin lost their turf war.

In 1947 they were tried in a show trial—the “honor court”—and convicted of antipatriotism on a trumped-up charge of sharing their research results with Americans.

“This whole thing was just Cold War propaganda,” Dr. Krementsov noted. “The Cold War penetrated every facet of our lives, including cancer research.”

It was the beginning of the KR researchers' downfall, although they were allowed to continue their work. Then in 1951, with the loss of their funding and their laboratory, the scientists who had once ridden high on the promise of KR as a cancer cure were discredited.

Ironically, KR research was revived in Russia in the late 1980s when immunotherapy became a “hot topic” in cancer research, said Dr. Krementsov. This time, scientists started studying the compound for its immune-stimulating effects, not its effects as a “cancer antibiotic.”

KR research goes on today. Dr. Krementsov said he saw a publication citation on KR as recently as 2001.

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Book by Dr. Krementsov



Dr. Kremensov is also the author of The Cure: A Story of Cancer and Politics from the Annals of the Cold War, published by the University of Chicago Press, which focuses on the story of two Russian scientists, Nina Kliuva and Grigorii Roskin and their discovery of a preparation called KR that dissolved tumors in mice. As a news release about the book puts it, “Their race for the cure was fueled by bitter rivalries between the superpowers as well as among agencies within the former Soviet Union itself, and eventually the research on KR collapsed amidst these territorial battles.”

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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