120 years of discovery: 10 ways we’ve changed the story for people with cancer

We’ve been at the forefront of cancer research since 1902. And with your support, we’ll go much further.

Donate now

Computational analysis of cancerComputational analysis of cancer. 

This year, World Cancer Day also marks our 20th anniversary. Throughout the year we’ll be reflecting on the charity’s incredible achievements since it was founded in 2002.

But our history goes back much further, to 1902, with the founding of one of our forerunners, Imperial Cancer Research Fund. This year will also mark 120 years of life-saving discoveries.

Here are 10 ways our researchers, campaigners, supporters, volunteers and staff have helped change the story for people with cancer.

1. A legacy of life-saving medicines

From the arrival of chemotherapy in the early 1900s to the development of advanced, targeted treatments and immunotherapy, our research has contributed to more than 50 cancer drugs in use today. That includes some of the most widely used on the NHS, and several on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines.

We’ve contributed to chemotherapy drugs like carboplatin, docetaxel and etoposide; hormone treatments like tamoxifen and abiraterone, and PARP inhibitor drugs like olaparib and rucaparib. Taken together, drugs linked to Cancer Research UK are used to treat more than 120,000 patients a year on the NHS.

We’ll be publishing an in-depth look at our work in this area next week.

2. Understanding how cancer cells tick

For over a century, our researchers have worked to identify molecules and trace the cellular circuitry that trigger cells to grow out of control, contributing to the way researchers around the world understand cancer. Here are a few of the highlights.

In 2001, our researchers shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering the system that precisely controls when cells – including cancer cells – divide. This work revolutionised understanding of how cells multiply and led to drugs that precisely target this system, known as ‘CDK inhibitors’.

Our researchers have also helped revolutionise understanding of how cells repair their DNA – another key process that goes wrong in cancer. In 2015 another of our researchers, Tomas Lindahl, won a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in this field, which has led to drugs, such as PARP inhibitors, which target it.

Our milestone series delves into more of these discoveries – from overturning widely held ideas on the causes of cancer with the discovery of EGFR, to identifying a protein called p53, dubbed the ‘guardian of the genome’.

3. Unpicking how tumours grow and evolve

No tumour is an island. Cancer cells are intricately connected to each other and to the world around them – a complex network of blood vessels, supporting cells and immune cells. Understanding how this environment shapes tumours as they grow and adapt is vital to tackling the disease.

Over the years, our research has helped map out this ‘tumour microenvironment’, from pioneering work on blood vessel growth, to work on building an ‘artificial tumour’ to better study cancer in the lab.

More recently, at the Francis Crick Institute, our chief scientist and the TRACERx team are using the latest genetic mapping technologies to follow what happens to a person’s tumour as they’re diagnosed and treated. This influential work is already leading to a new understanding of the immune system’s role in cancer.

4. Discovering the causes of cancer

From understanding how processes inside our cells – like DNA mutations – lead to cancer, to studying how environmental triggers – like tobacco, obesity or ultraviolet light – can accelerate these changes, our scientists have played a key role in discovering the causes of cancer. Here are a few highlights.

In the 1990s, our scientists led an international collaboration to help pinpoint the BRCA1 gene. When faulty, this gene raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as other cancer types. A year later, our scientists tracked down the BRCA2 gene, which is also responsible for some inherited cancers.

And after tobacco was first linked to cancer in the 1950s, we supported world-leading researchers to build more evidence of the strength of the link. In 2004, Sir Richard Doll published the results of a 50 year study into the smoking habits of British male doctors, showing that lifelong male smokers died on average 10 years younger than lifetime non-smokers.

This work formed the cornerstone of campaigning efforts to reduce tobacco’s impact. After years of campaigning, the UK government introduced a smoking ban in 2007. Almost a decade later, standardised cigarette packaging was rolled out across the country.

Copy this link and share our graphic. Credit: Cancer Research UK

Almost 60 years ago, our funding helped Dennis Burkitt and Anthony Epstein take the initial steps in finding the first human virus to directly cause cancer in humans – Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). We know now that EBV infection plays a role in several cancer types, including lymphomas, nasopharyngeal and some stomach cancers.

5. HPV and cancer

In 1974, Cancer Research UK researcher Valerie Beral first suggested that cervical cancer might be linked to an infection. Then in the 80s and 90s, scientists in Germany uncovered the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. But it took Cancer Research UK scientist Professor Julian Peto’s meticulous work to reveal just how strong that connection was.

In 1999, Peto’s team found that virtually all cervical cancer samples (99.7%) contained the virus and showed that HPV infection was the trigger for cervical cancer. It was, and still is, the strongest link between a single ‘cause’ and a specific cancer. HPV infection has been linked to other cancers too, including mouth, throat, anal and vulval cancers.

This work opened the door for new ways to prevent certain cancers from developing – by protecting people against the high-risk HPV strains that caused it.

Cancer Research UK scientists in Glasgow first suggested that vaccines could be effective against this type of virus, and led the UK’s first human trial of the HPV vaccine in the early 2000s. Trials like this set the stage for the UK HPV vaccination programme, which began in 2008. And just last year, our researchers demonstrated that this programme has reduced cervical cancer rates by almost 90%.

Our scientists have also helped to develop and improve cervical screening. Cancer Research UK researchers proved that testing for HPV could be a more effective warning system than the traditional cytology test. This led to a switch in England, Wales and Scotland in the last few years to first test women for signs of infection with HPV, rather than initially looking for abnormal cell changes.

Our in-depth article has more on the link between HPV and cancer.

6. Practice-changing trials

Over the years we’ve supported a wide range of clinical trials – from the first studies of promising treatments to trials to improve or expand how existing drugs are used. Here are just a couple of examples of our practice-changing work.

The STAMPEDE trial has transformed the way prostate cancer is treated. It’s been running since 2005, has recruited more than 11,000 patients and has led to 29 changes in clinical practice around the world. For example, STAMPEDE proved that the chemotherapy drug docetaxel improves survival for people with early prostate cancer.

And, more recently, the trial showed that adding abiraterone and the steroid prednisolone to standard hormone therapy extended the lives of men whose prostate cancer had spread.

Its innovative design – which allows for multiple treatment options to be tested at once and new therapies to be added as they’re developed – has also paved the way for other multi-arm trials.

And just last year, our CONFIRM trial found that the immunotherapy drug nivolumab increased survival for people with an aggressive form of asbestos-linked lung cancer called mesothelioma. The drug is currently being evaluated for NHS use based on this evidence.

7. Changing the outlook for children with cancer

The number of children and young people surviving their cancer has risen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to researchers like ours.

In 1974, our researchers showed that there are different types of childhood leukaemia, boosting understanding of the disease. This led to the development of more targeted and effective treatments, helping more children survive.

In 2010, a trial we helped fund demonstrates that a drug called mitoxantrone could dramatically improve survival in children whose acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has returned. This revolutionised the way children with ALL are treated.

And in 2018, a trial we supported found that giving sodium thiosulfate alongside cisplatin chemotherapy almost halves the risk of hearing loss for young patients with the most common childhood liver cancer.

Our in-depth article covers more of the progress we’ve made to improve survival and reduce the long-term impact of treatment for children with cancer.

8. Detecting cancer earlier

From first testing mammography as a way to diagnose early breast cancer to confirming that the optimal breast screening interval is 3 years, our research has played a key role in the development and improvement of the national breast screening programme.

Our scientists have also developed new tests to detect oesophageal cancer earlier. They’ve developed a ‘sponge-on-a-string’ test that can identify 10 times more people with Barrett’s oesophagus than current GP care. Cytosponge is a simple, quick and affordable test that’s now being introduced in the NHS.

As well as funding research into new diagnostic tests, we’re also working with researchers, government, pharmaceutical companies and the public to fundamentally shift how we approach early detection.

9. Revolutionising radiotherapy

Modern radiotherapy techniques benefit more than 130,000 patients each year in the UK. It’s a treatment with a long history, dating back to the early 20th century. And our scientists have been there from the very beginning.

Our pioneering research laid the foundations of modern radiotherapy back in the 1920s and 30s, investigating the clinical use of radium and working with the Radium Commission to coordinate and monitor its use across the UK.

And between 1998 and 2003, Cancer Research UK and others supported the START trials, which showed that giving radiotherapy in fewer, high doses was gentler on healthy tissues, changing clinical practice for people having radiotherapy for early stage breast cancer.

In 2016, our campaigning led to NHS England investing £130 million in radiotherapy machines and a £50 million investment in Scotland. And in 2019 we launched a new £56m radiotherapy research network – Radnet – to help develop new technology, harness the power of existing techniques and help scientists really understand what happens when cancer cells are hit by radiotherapy beams.

10. Hormones and cancer

Our researchers helped to uncover the links between hormone and cancer – both in terms of increasing risk and in developing treatments for the disease.

Through the Million Women Study, Professor Valerie Beral’s team showed that women using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are more likely to develop breast cancer, ovarian and womb cancers than those whose who aren’t. While the increased risk is small, the findings have helped to support informed conversations about the risk and benefits of HRT.

Our scientists also supported the development of hormone-based treatments, starting in the 1930s with the development of stilboestrol, the first synthetic hormone used as a cancer treatment.

In the 1990s, using newly emerging knowledge of hormone biology and hormone-linked prostate cancer, our scientists zeroed in on a promising-looking compound called abiraterone.

And we helped to pinpoint the overall benefits of tamoxifen – a breast cancer hormone therapy – discovering that women over 50 had much better outcomes with tamoxifen than chemotherapy.

120 years of discovery

This list is just a fraction of the research we’ve funded over the years. To view more high-impact science stories, you can browse our milestones series or visit our achievements timeline. And we’ve got more articles on Cancer Research UK-funded research on our news site.

None of this work would have been possible without the enduring generosity of the public.

As well as the collective support of all our fundraisers and supporters, we’d like to recognise the philanthropic support we’ve received for the projects above from The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation, The Woosnam Foundation, The Garfield Weston Foundation, His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, and the members of our Catalyst Club.

More on this topic

Source