Our research history

Thanks to research, more people are beating cancer than ever before. In the 1970s, only a quarter of people survived. Today, more than half will survive for at least ten years

Browse our timeline to find out how we’re making cancer history.

Strides forward for immunotherapy

Scientists based at the Francis Crick Institute and UCL discovered more about what makes a ‘good’ versus a ‘bad’ target for immune cells to spot on cancer cells. This could have help scientists develop better ways to use immunotherapies and help them understand why these treatments don’t work for all cancers.

And our scientists are studying ways to engineer more potent cancer-fighting immune cells by using gene editing to delete their sleep function. This could stop cancer switching off attacking immune cells, but it’s still being tested in mice so it’s early days.  

Results from tests looking at using immunotherapies to treat pancreatic cancer have been disappointing, but research from the Beatson Institute in Glasgow might shed some light on why this is. They found that molecules in pancreatic tumours’ surroundings were stopping the cancer-fighting immune cells attacking the tumour, and drugs that block these molecules helped boost the power of immunotherapies in mice. 

Drug combination shrinks certain breast cancers within 11 days

Results from a trial we fund, EPHOS B, indicate that there’s a group of HER2 positive breast cancer patients who are likely to benefit from receiving the drugs trastuzamab (Herceptin) and lapatinib before surgery. And the researchers running the trial think these same women may not need chemotherapy after surgery http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2016/03/11/unprecedented-breast-cancer-trial-results-explained/. But it’s too early to say this for sure – these results need to be confirmed with larger clinical trials and longer follow-up.

Can blood tests help make treatment more effective? 

Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute showed that analysing cancer DNA in blood samples could give doctors a good indication of what treatments are more likely to work for a patient, based on genetic mistakes in people’s cancer.

Another team at the University of Cambridge focused on ovarian cancer and showed that the level of a faulty cancer gene – p53 – detectable in DNA from blood samples following treatment could be a good early indication of how well the cancer is responding. 

Both of these studies are still early in development – bigger clinical trials will need to be carried out to find out if they improve the outlook for patients. But it’s a promising area of research, and one we’re keeping an eager eye on. 

Scientists discover new way to tackle brain tumours

Our scientists found that a curable type of medulloblastoma brain tumours in children – called WNT medulloblastoma – grow ‘leaky’ blood vessels that allow high levels of chemotherapy drugs to reach the cancer cells and destroy them. This discovery helps scientists understand why this type of tumour respond better to treatment and could help them develop more effective treatments for other harder to treat types of medulloblastoma.

And our scientists in Edinburgh made it possible to see the unexpected relationship that specialised immune cells in the brain (called microglia) have with brain tumour cells. Their findings could open up a new way to test drugs for glioblastoma, the most common type of brain tumour.

Fewer hospital trips for men with prostate cancer

Results from a large clinical trial showed that fewer, stronger doses of radiotherapy could be just as effective in treating men with prostate cancer as more, smaller doses. This would mean fewer trips to the hospital for men, potentially fewer side effects, as well as savings for the NHS. This evidence should change the way men are given radiotherapy for prostate cancer in the UK.

Why cancer is more than just bad luck

Our researchers in Cambridge, and colleagues in the US, uncovered the ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that can lead to cancer. The discovery could help explain why some organs are more susceptible to developing tumours than others and explains why cancer is more than just bad luck.  

New ways to detect and treat oesophageal cancer

Our scientists at the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge discovered that oesophageal cancer can be divided into three different groups  – a finding that could pave the way for testing new drugs targeting specific weaknesses unique to each type of oesophageal cancer.  

Researchers from Cambridge also found a new and potentially better way to spot oesophageal cancer at a very early stage. Using an infra-red light and a dye that sticks to healthy oesophageal cells but not to precancerous cells, they showed that this technology can spot abnormal cells that are on their way to becoming cancerous. If removed at this stage, some cases of oesophageal cancer could be prevented. 

Scientists reveal ‘genetic signatures’ left by cigarette smoke

In November a study, led by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, revealed some of the details of how tobacco causes such devastation to our cells and increases the risk of cancer in different organs. Different organs in the body display different hallmarks of tobacco damage, showing that the ways tobacco harms cells are more complex than we previously thought.

More progress from this year 

Opening a window of opportunity for head and neck cancer

Blocking the escape routes: how an HIV drug exposes skin cancer’s weaknesses

Scientists find new genetic fault behind ovarian cancer

Science Snaps: switching T cells on – size matters

From One-eyed lambs to target skin cancer drugs

Advances in Wilms’ tumour treatment – how less became more

Decoding Cancer’s secret diary

Balls of cells with their own ‘passport’ to help speed up cancer drug testing

Building tumours in the lab – a how to guide

Science Snaps: leukaemia cells are born to run

Rewiring cancers’ circuits – a new way to kill?

Targeting the cell’s master controller: Myc

Piecing together breast cancers’ immune cell composition

Unpicking genetic chaos

Pushing ‘unstable’ pancreatic cancers over the edge

Professor Andrew Biankin found that pancreatic cancer can actually be split into four different diseases based on how damaged and chaotic the tumour’s DNA is.

The findings could be used to improve treatments, and in turn survival for the disease, something which is urgently needed.


This year saw the launch of Add-Aspirin, the world’s largest clinical trial looking at whether taking aspirin can prevent some of the most common cancers coming back. The trial will run in the UK and in India, open in more than 100 centres across the UK and recruit 11,000 patients.

Tumour evolution

Our researchers showed that the more genetic mistakes an oesophageal tumour contains, the more aggressive it’s likely to be. They also showed that drugs like cisplatin – the standard treatment for oesophageal cancer – were less likely to work when the tumour had lots of mistakes.

In the future, the findings could allow doctors to better tailor oesophageal cancer treatment by identifying patients who are more or less likely to respond to drugs like cisplatin.

The Grand Challenge

In October we launched Grand Challenge, a £100m scheme tackling some of the biggest hurdles and challenges in understanding, preventing and treating cancer.

You can read about the seven challenges and what answering them could mean for patients in our Grand Challenge blog series.

Understanding more about ‘double positive’ breast cancer

Cambridge-based Dr Jason Carroll and his team uncovered vital clues that might explain why women with breast cancer who have high levels of both the oestrogen and progesterone receptors (‘double-positive’) have the best chance of surviving.

They found that turning on the progesterone receptor re-programmes the effects of oestrogen on breast cancer cells, slowing down their growth. It’s early research, but it could lead to better treatments for women with ‘double positive’ breast cancer in future.

These are just the highlights from 2015 - read more on our blog


More progress from this year 

Improving the gold standard for brain tumours 
Unpicking the genetic patchwork in ovarian cancer 
From snapshot to family tree – writing the evolutionary rule book of cancer
When defences attack – the hidden cause of cancer hiding in our cells
Cancer killer combination could make cells more sensitive to chemo
Cellular kryptonite poses challenges in tackling childhood nerve cancer
Antioxidants, free radicals and melanoma spread – what’s going on?
Stopping cancer’s scrum for survival
The five faces of prostate cancer?

Death rates fall for top cancer killers

New figures released this year show that death rates for breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancer combined have fallen by almost a third in the last 20 years, thanks to research.

We get exciting early results from our clinical trial of Cytosponge, a simple sponge on a string test, showing that it’s just as good at detecting people who are at higher risk of developing oesophageal cancer as more invasive endoscopy procedures. 

Thousands of people help our research by playing the revolutionary smartphone game, Genes in Space, analysing DNA from real cancer samples. Within a month, this huge team of Citizen Scientists processed more than 40 miles of DNA data, which would have taken our scientists more than half a year.

Several studies from our researchers shed light on how melanoma skin cancer spreads through the body, pointing towards new avenues for future therapies. 

Our scientists discover an unexpected connection between a rare medical condition – Stone Man syndrome, where muscle turns to bone – and a deadly type of childhood brain tumour known as DIPG. 


More progress from this year

An independent review supports our standardised tobacco packaging campaign

Our researchers shed light on the genetic changes underpinning the rare type of cancer that killed Bob Marley

The National Lung Matrix trial launches, testing personalised therapies for lung cancer

We unveil our new five-year strategy to beat cancer sooner

We team up with the Royal Marsden hospital to train GPs to spot cancer earlier

Hunting cancer genes

A huge research effort reveals 80 new genetic variations that increase the risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancers.

We reveal the potential of ‘liquid biopsies’ as a simple test to track the evolution of several types of cancer. 

Our researchers find that taking the breast cancer drug tamoxifen for 10 years rather than the recommended five halves the risk of the disease returning, while the drug anastrozole halves the chances of breast cancer developing in women at high risk.  

We launch the revolutionary TRACERx study, tracking how lung cancers evolve within the body, as well as a groundbreaking new clinical trial for children with neuroblastoma


More progress from this year

Lung cancer campaign could save lives 

Pushing hard for standardised tobacco packs a move that has now been supported by an independent review

DNA untwister is a new tumour suppressor



Rewriting the rule book

No information availableOur scientists’ discovery that breast cancer is 10 separate diseases makes headline news around the world, rewriting the rule-book on what we know about it. 

We announce a groundbreaking study showing how cancers evolve within the body, helping to explain why they can be so difficult to treat

Our researchers show that a combination of two drugs is far more effective against pancreatic cancer than each one on its own  – both are now being tested together in an early stage clinical trial.

A major trial funded by Cancer Research UK shows that adding chemo to radiotherapy can halve the risk of bladder cancer coming back after treatment, changing the way that people with the disease are treated.


More progress from this year

New ‘gold standard’ for thyroid cancer radiotherapy 

Progress in childhood kidney cancer Wilms’ tumour 

“Stop-start” hormone therapy better for prostate cancer 



Unlocking cancer’s secrets

Our scientists make progress in deciphering the molecular ‘signature’ of prostate cancer, and find a new ‘accelerator’ gene that drives the growth of breast cancer

We make a crucial connection between cancer and inflammation, taking an important step forward in understanding how the two are linked. 

We launch an important new trial to find out if a ‘sponge on a string’ can detect Barrett's oesophagus - a condition that increases the risk of oesophageal cancer. 

We join the International Cancer Genome Consortium, reading the DNA code of hundreds of prostate and oesophageal tumours to unlock cancer’s genetic secrets. 


More progress from this year

Stratified Medicine Programme launches, testing tailored treatments for cancer

Our campaigners help push through sunbed law

New ovarian cancer gene found 

Potential childhood leukaemia treatment discovered



Bowel screening success and childhood leukaemia boost

We announce the results of a major trial of a new bowel cancer screening technique, known as  bowel scope, which could save thousands of lives and is now being rolled out. 

We show that a new treatment can improve survival by more than 50% for children whose leukaemia has come back. 

Our researchers discover the secret behind melanoma’s ‘self-healing’ powers, which could help tailor treatment in future. 

Our trial shows that a new drug combination can increase survival from gall bladder and bile duct cancers, highlighting the importance of research into these less common diseases. 


More progress from this year

Liver surgery boosts bowel cancer survival

Fewer, larger doses of radiotherapy better for breast cancer

Cancer-spotting ‘watchman’ cells found in the immune system


Developing kinder radiotherapy and tracking down genes

We show that a more targeted radiotherapy technique, called IMRT, can treat head and neck cancer with fewer side effects. 

Our researchers find new gene changes linked to breast, ovarian, prostate and bowel cancers, as well as childhood brain tumours

Using cutting-edge imaging techniques, our researchers spy on moving cancer cells and identify possible targets for new treatments

Our scientists make an important step forward in understanding the link between the female sex hormone oestrogen and cancer. 


More progress from this year

Immune system ‘danger’ signal found

Old drug could have new tricks for hereditary bowel cancer

New route to leukaemia discovered


Brain tumour genes and rogue stem cells

Our scientists track down genes linked to three types of childhood brain tumour – meningioma, ependymoma and pilocytic astrocytoma.

We launch the first UK trial of PARP inhibitor drugs, designed to target breast and ovarian cancer in women who have inherited a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. 

Our researchers figure out why some breast cancers become resistant to the drug tamoxifen, paving the way for more effective long-term treatments in the future

We show how rogue stem cells in the bowel can lead to cancer  , and find a faulty gene ‘trigger’ that makes the disease grow aggressively.  

Our scientists finally find vital DNA repair ‘scissors’ after an 18-year long hunt, revealing more about how faults in this process can lead to cancer.  And at The Institute of Cancer Research, our scientists figure out the three-dimensional structure of a molecule called Hsp90, which helps to fold up proteins inside cells. This underpins the development of new cancer drugs that are now being tested in clinical trials.


More progress from this year

Viruses in disguise could fight ovarian cancer

Major breakthrough in understanding DNA ‘rings’

Faster chemo increases survival from neuroblastoma

Tiny worms reveal ‘protector of the genome’


Smoke-free UK and trial successes

Thousands of our supporters get involved in the successful campaign to bring in smoke-free legislation, which comes into effect in the UK in 2007 – a move that will prevent thousands of premature deaths over the next decade. 

Our researchers help to run one of the largest ever clinical trials testing the benefits of chemotherapy for bowel cancer. The trial showed for the first time that chemotherapy could help to improve survival for people whose cancer was less advanced, and changed the way that patients are treated. 

We home in on new breast and bowel cancer genes in groundbreaking studies. 

Working together with the Brain Tumour Charity, our clinical trial shows that using chemotherapy to delay or avoid radiotherapy in children under three with ependymoma reduces the risk of health problems later in life. 

We show that white blood cell donations could be used to treat transplant patients who develop particular cancers related to virus infection. 


More progress from this year

Our new Cambridge Research Institute is opened by the Queen

Imaging technique could tell if treatment works within days

Unstable chromosomes are key to drug resistance


Better screening and 3-D structures

We develop a way to identify groups of people with a higher risk of bowel cancer due to genetic variations. This could lead to new measures, such as more targeted screening, to prevent the disease for thousands of people in the future. 

We show that a revolutionary way to read mammograms with the help of a computer could free up time for hundreds of medical experts and speed the breast screening process.  

Our researchers unravel the three-dimensional structure of a protein called Hsp90, which is important in many types of cancer. Scientists are now developing and testing new cancer treatments based on this discovery.  

We discover how a faulty gene leads to kidney cancer, paving the way for future treatments for the disease. 

We launch a network of Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) across the UK, designed to get new cancer treatments into clinical trials in patients as quickly as possible. 


More progress from this year

Rogue gene linked to breast and childhood cancer link

Molecular ‘handcuffs’ could lead to future cancer therapy

Overcoming chemotherapy resistance in lung cancer


BRCA breakthrough and new surgery techniques

We show that cancers caused by faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes can be killed by drugs called PARP inhibitors. These treatments are now being tested in clinical trials with promising results, and could potentially treat other types of cancer too.  

Our scientists discover that screening could reduce bowel cancer rates by up to 80 per cent in people with a moderate family history of the disease. 

We show that technique called sentinel node biopsy can reduce the side effects of breast cancer surgery.  This is now the preferred way of finding out whether breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.  

Our scientists discover a test that can help doctors identify children who need more intensive treatment for medulloblastoma, the most common type of childhood brain tumour. 

We launch national campaigns highlighting how to reduce the risk of cancer by changing lifestyle  and raising awareness of mouth cancer.   


More progress from this year

Virus tricks harnessed to target cells

Bladder cancer treatment test

Cells’ energy factories linked to cancer


Smoking risks and progress in pancreatic cancer

We show that giving pancreatic cancer patients chemotherapy along with surgery can treble survival, changing the way that patients are treated. 

A unique 50-year study that we helped to fund shows that smokers die on average 10 years earlier than non-smokers. But stopping at any age - even in later life - cuts the risk, highlighting the importance of quitting. 

Our researchers find out how a virus causes a rare type of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, which tends to affect people with HIV. It was also our researchers who made the link between the virus and the cancer, back in 1990

Our scientists shed light on the secret of cancer cells’ ‘eternal life’, pointing towards potential targets for future treatments. 

At The Institute of Cancer Research, our scientists figure out the shape of the faulty version of a protein called BRAF, which drives cancer cells to grow. This discovery underpins the development of BRAF-blocking drugs such as venurafenib (Zelboraf).


More progress from this year

Brain tumour scan monitors treatment response

Radon gas increases lung cancer risk

Miscarriages and abortions don’t increase cancer risk

HRT, HPV and a missing link

A study of over one million women reveals that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increases the risk of breast cancer. And we show that radiotherapy is more effective than tamoxifen for treating the earliest stages of breast cancer. 

Our researchers show that testing women for human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, could improve the effectiveness of screening.   Today, HPV testing is part of the NHS cervical cancer screening programme

Our scientists discover a gene that is the ‘missing link’ between non-inherited and inherited forms of breast and ovarian cancers, helping us to understand how they develop and paving the way for future treatments.   

We fund a clinical trial showing that adding chemotherapy to radiotherapy can help improve survival from medulloblastoma, the most common type of brain tumour in children. 

We prove that high-dose chemotherapy is more effective than lower doses for treating multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. 


More progress from this year

Turning immune cells into cancer killers in on ovarian cancer gene

Microbeams could be future cancer zappers

Rare condition sheds light on DNA defences


The start of Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK is born from the merger of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and The Cancer Research Campaign. 

Our scientists find that faults in a gene called BRAF are involved in more than half of all cases of melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer. The work has led to the rapid discovery and development of treatments designed to block BRAF, one of which – vemurafenib (Zelboraf) – is now available for patients on the NHS. 

Our researchers find a molecule in urine that reveals the presence of bladder cancer.  Today, their discovery is being developed into tests for prostate and bladder cancer that could help to save many lives by diagnosing the diseases earlier

We show how bowel cancer cells break away from a tumour and spread round the body. 

We find a new gene linked to inherited breast cancer, shedding more light on how genes influence cancer risk. 


More progress from this year

Cracking the genetic code of yeast

Lighting up Wilms’ tumour

New drug combination for mesothelioma lung cancer


Fruit, veg and a Nobel Prize

Our researchers Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Tim Hunt receive a share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research in the 1980s. They discovered the ‘engine’ that drives all cells – including cancer cells – to grow and multiply, paving the way for future cancer treatments. 

In a study looking at thousands of people, our researchers discover a clear relationship between a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and a reduced risk of life-threatening illnesses, including cancer. 

We show that it’s possible to freeze samples of tissue from a woman’s ovaries before chemotherapy and successfully transplant them afterwards, opening the door to techniques to help preserve women’s fertility after cancer treatment. 

We launch the first UK trial of a vaccine against the virus that causes cervical cancer. Today, a vaccination programme has been rolled out for girls across the UK, which should save many lives in the future.   

We play a vital role in setting up and leading the National Cancer Research Institute, bringing together researchers, doctors, patients and funding organisations across the UK to make faster, more co-ordinated progress in beating cancer. 

Lymphoma trials and new gene links

We support early trials of rituximab (Mabthera) – a drug that has made a big difference to survival for people with certain types of lymphoma. 

We showed that faults in a gene called BRCA2 are responsible for around one in 20 cases of prostate cancer that run in families , and track down the location of a gene called TGCT-1, linked to testicular cancer.  

We figure out an important step in how damaged DNA is ‘unpackaged’ so it can be repaired. Damaged DNA is a key cause of cancer, so discovering how it is fixed, and what happens if it isn’t, is crucial to understanding how cancer starts and how to tackle it more effectively. 

Our award-winning CancerHelp website relaunches, providing information about different types of cancer to patients, families and friends. 

Our scientists uncover some of the lifestyle factors linked to HPV infection and cervical cancer, particularly smoking, having a high number of sexual partners and starting to have sex at a younger age. 

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