The therapeutic virtues of radium were highlighted shortly after its discovery in 1898. In 1901, following the observations of Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie was one of the first to expose, for experimental purposes, the skin of an arm to radium, to observe the effects caused by the radiation. He became an active promoter of the application of the radium in the medical community. The stubbornness of the scientist to demonstrate the therapeutic utility of radioelements partly explains Marie Curie’s will to create a research institute for the fight against cancer: radiumtherapy or curietherapy (brachytherapy) would be born of her collaboration with Claudius Regaud.
WWI accelerated the development of the therapeutic use of radioactivity. Radon, a radioactive gas that emanates from radium, was used to help to heal the wounds of soldiers, thanks to the antiseptic action of radiation. The Radium Institute provided these radon bulbs to doctors on the front. They were transported in small leaden boxes like the one presented in the museum. Radontherapy continued after the war in the Radium Institute where radon tubes were prepared according to a method developed by André Debierne, a close collaborator of Marie Curie, discoverer of Actinium and director of the laboratory after her death.
The concept of radioprotection already existed in 1921: the tray and the amounts of this table used for handling radioactive foci included lead blades 2 cm thick.
Curietherapy (brachytherapy) : external use
It is not until the end of World War I in 1918 and the opening of the Radium Institute to see grow curietherapy (brachytherapy) strictly speaking. Contrary to radon, a gas whose radioactivity decreases quickly, the use of radium enabled to assure the stability of radiation and avoid loss of efficiency. Radium, used in the form of salts (radium chloride or bromide) sealed in hollow needles or tubes placed in applicators, was positioned in contact with the area to be irradiated. The system was maintained in position thanks to wax moldings adopting the shape of the surface to be treated, for an external use.
The intracavitary curietherapy (brachytherapy)
The use of radium also became widespread to treat other types of cancers, accessible by natural conduits (nose, mouth, rectum, vagina…). This was intracavitary curietherapy (brachytherapy). Cervical cancer was a major subject of study and research at the Radium Institute. In 1920, Claudius Regaud invented a spring “colpostat” (kind of elastic spacer joining two cork tube-holders containing the radioactive sources) to allow the implementation of radioactive foci in womb and vagina.
A tumor is not always accessible by a natural conduit, so it was necessary to develop new techniques to reach it. The introduction of hollow needles containing some radium in tumors of the cutaneous surface or mucous membrane is called radiumpuncture: the radioactive source was placed at the heart of the zone to be treated. The technique, invented by Walter Stevenson in 1914 at the Radium Institute of Dublin, consisted of introducing a tiny glass tube containing radium salt in hollow platinum-iridium needles. The number of radioactive foci to be used depended on the nature of the tumor (size, radiosensitivity, etc.).
Conception : Musée Curie
Photographie 2012 : Alexandre Lescure, Institut Curie
Photographies anciennes : collections ACJC et Service Iconographique de l'Hôpital, Musée Curie