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Our progress and achievements in the 1980s

The fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s The 80s was a decade of day-glo clothes, synthesizer pop music, and Margaret Thatcher.

The Union Jack flew high as Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer and our troops went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Our TV screens showed tragic pictures of starving children in Africa, prompting Sir Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert. Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the music scene, and in Germany the last relics of communism in Europe were dismantled as the Berlin Wall came down.

In the 1980s the pace of cancer research cranked up another gear, and it was a busy decade for our scientists. Here are just a few highlights of their progress.

Cancer rates in the 1980s

The number of new cases of cancer diagnosed each year reached 200,000 in this decade. Overall, cancer incidence rates in women increased by 13 per cent, mainly due to breast cancer, whilst the rate for men increased by only 4 per cent.

Ovarian cancer survival improved during the 1980s with five-year survival standing at 29 per cent by the end of the 80s compared with 23 per cent in the 70s.

Tamoxifen trials

We funded several large trials that proved the benefits of tamoxifen after surgery for breast cancer. 1 The work led to a major breakthrough in the way the disease is treated, significantly improving survival.

In 1986 our scientists at the Royal Marsden Hospital launched the first trial to test whether the drug tamoxifen could prevent breast cancer. The twenty-year results from the IBIS-I trial were published in 2007, and proved the long-term benefits of the treatment. 2

Drug development

Some pillsWe founded our Phase I/II Clinical Trials Committee, to improve the transition of potential new cancer treatments from the lab to patients for first testing in trials. Since 1982 the Committee has taken more than 100 drugs into early trials, and a number of these have become registered treatments, including temozolomide (Temodal) and formestane (Lentaron).

In this decade our scientists first created temozolomide (Temodal), a drug that is now used worldwide to treat glioblastoma, a common form of brain cancer. 3 Following on from this, our clinical scientists first showed that the drug worked in patients in the 1990s. 4

And in the 1980s our scientists also discovered and developed the drug carboplatin, which causes fewer side effects than cisplatin. 5 It is now widely used in the treatment of ovarian cancer, where it has had a major impact on survival. It is also used to treat head and neck cancer and lung cancer.

Finding faulty genes and molecules

A scientist looking down a microscopeOur scientists tracked down an important cancer gene called APC. Inherited faults in APC dramatically increase a person's risk of bowel cancer. This discovery helped doctors to identify and help people most at risk from the disease. 6

In 1983, our researchers discovered a cancer-causing gene called N-RAS, one of a family of similar molecules that are involved in the disease. 7 Over the next decade they identified other molecules that work with RAS, and showed how they fuel the growth of lung, bowel and pancreatic cancers. 8

Research carried out by our scientists first showed that a molecule called MUC1 is overactive in cancer cells. 9 Researchers have since used this discovery to design vaccines against MUC1 to treat cancer. One of these, called Stimuvax, is now in large-scale clinical trials for the most common form of lung cancer.

Nobel Prize-winning research

Sir Tim HuntIn the early 80s Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Tim Hunt carried out cutting-edge research into the regulation of cell growth, paving the way for future cancer treatments. In 2001 they received a share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition of their achievements. 10,11

Childhood cancer

We began funding the clinical trials work of the UK Children’s Cancer Study Group, which then became the Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group. 

Now, more than seven out of ten children with cancer are successfully treated.  And we continue to fund vital research into treating children with cancer through the Cancer Research UK Children's Cancer Trials Team.

Improving communication

In the 80s we awarded the first psychosocial research grant to Professor Peter Maguire in Manchester, who documented high levels of depression among patients and realised the importance of effective communication to identify patients' concerns and relieve anxiety. 

Thanks to the work of our researchers, all cancer specialists in Britain are now expected to receive specific training in how best to communicate with patients.

And we’re still going strong

Find out about the latest progress from our Press Centre and Science Update Blog.

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  1.   Early Breast Cancer Trialists’ Collaborative Group (1998) Tamoxifen for early breast cancer: an overview of the randomised trials. Lancet 351;1451-67 PubMed link
  2.   Powles, T.J. et al. (2007) Twenty-year follow-up of the Royal Marsden randomized, double-blinded tamoxifen breast cancer prevention trial. J Natl Cancer Inst 99: 293-90 PubMed link
  3.   Stevens, M.F. et al. (1987) Antitumor activity and pharmacokinetics in mice of 8-carbamoyl-3-methyl-imidazo[5,1-d]-1,2,3,5-tetrazin-4(3H)-one (CCRG 81045; M & B 39831), a novel drug with potential as an alternative to dacarbazine. Cancer Research 47: 5846-52 PubMed link
  4.   Newlands, E.S. et al. (1992) Phase I trial of temozolmide. Br. J. Cancer 65: 287-91 PubMed link
  5.   Calvert, A.H. et al. (1982) Early clinical studies with cis-diammine-1,1-cyclobutane dicarboxylate platinum II. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol 9: 140-7 PubMed link
  6.   Bodmer, W. et al. (1987) Localization of the gene for familial adenomatous polyposis on chromosome 5. Nature 328: 614-6 PubMed link
  7.   Hall, A. et al. (1983) Identification of transforming gene in two human sarcoma cell lines as a new member of the ras gene family located on chromosome 1. Nature 303: 396-400 PubMed link
  8.   Rodriguez-Viciana, P. et al. Phosphatidylinositol-3-OH kinase as a direct target for ras. Nature 370: 527-32 PubMed link
  9.   Lalani, E.N. et al. (1991) Expression of the gene coding for a human mucin in mouse mammary tumor cells can affect their tumorigenicity. J. Biol. Chem. 266: 15420-6 PubMed link
  10.   Nurse, P. et al. (1976) Genetic control of the cell division cycle in the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Mol. Gen. Genet. 146: 167-78 PubMed link
  11.   Pines, J & Hunt, T. (1987) Molecular cloning and characterization of the mRNA for cyclin from sea urchin eggs. EMBO J. 6: 2987-95 PubMed link
Updated: 25 September 2009