nitrogen mustard, any of various poisonous compounds originally developed for military use (see poison gas). Like mustard gas and lewisite, it is a vesicant (blistering agent). In the form of its crystalline hydrochloride it is used as a drug in the treatment of Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, and brain tumors. Nitrogen mustards cause mutations in the genetic material of cells, thereby disrupting mitosis, or cell division. Cells vary in their susceptibility to nitrogen mustards, with rapidly proliferating tumor and cancer cells most sensitive; bone marrow, which produces red blood cells, is also sensitive, and depression of red blood cell production is a frequent side effect of nitrogen mustard therapy. The nitrogen mustards also suppress the immune response (see immunity).
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