Our research history 1990 - 1940 and before

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.

Developing new drugs and finding genes

We help develop and test a new drug called abiraterone for advanced prostate cancer.  Now known as Zytiga, it was approved for men across the UK on the NHS in 2012.

Our researchers play a vital role in the hunt for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, linked to hereditary breast, ovarian and prostate cancers.

We launch several large-scale studies investigating the effects of lifestyle on cancer risk, including hormones and diet. Research like this underpins our health campaigns and cancer prevention messages.

We team up with others to show that the Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes the vast majority of cervical cancers worldwide. We also support pioneering studies paving the way for the HPV vaccine, which can prevent the disease. 

Our researchers figure out how a gene called Hedgehog is involved in driving cancer. This led to the development of vismodegib (Erivedge), a drug that interferes with how Hedgehog works and is now available for patients with a particular type of skin cancer.  

We fund the largest ever trial for people with pancreatic cancer, ESPAC 1, changing the way people are treated and bringing precious extra time. 

Scientists at our London Research Institute (now part of the Francis Crick Institute) discover that a gene called Myc plays an important role in cell growth and death, providing important new insights into the fundamental processes underpinning cancer. Two decades later, new therapies based on this work are showing great promise in the lab, with hopes that they might soon progress into clinical trials in humans. 

And our researchers discover the virus responsible for causing an unusual type of cancer - Kaposi sarcoma - in people with AIDS. 

Finding targets for future drugs

We discover that breast cancer cells have too many copies of a gene called HER-2, laying the foundations for the development of the life-saving drug Herceptin. And work on another gene, EGFR, leads the way to targeted therapies for many types of cancer including lung and bowel tumours. 

Our researchers pull together the results of many clinical trials showing that tamoxifen prevents breast cancer from coming back after surgery. This work led to a major breakthrough in the way that early breast cancer is treated, and has saved many thousands of lives in the UK and beyond.  

Our scientists discover the location of a ‘cancer accelerator’ gene called ABL, which is involved in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). These findings underpinned the development of Glivec, an important new drug that has transformed survival for patients with this type of cancer.  

Our researchers discover a cancer-causing gene called N-RAS. Over the next decade they find other molecules that work together with it, showing how they fuel the growth of lung, bowel and pancreatic cancers.  

We play a fundamental role in the early development and testing of temozolomide (Temodal), a drug that is now used worldwide to treat glioblastoma brain tumours. 

Our scientists track down the location of the bowel cancer gene APC, meaning that families affected by hereditary bowel cancer can be offered life-saving screening and prevention. 

Professor Hilary Calvert and his team devise the Calvert formula, still used today to calculate the correct dose of the drug carboplatin – a drug we discovered and developed – which has changed the outlook for many patients, especially women with ovarian cancer. 

More treatments being tested

Our researchers discover the p53 protein - the ‘guardian of the genome’ – which is faulty or inactivated in many cancers, leading to treatments that are being tested in clinical trials today.  

Our scientists were among the first to show that the drug cisplatin had strong activity against cancer. Today, nearly all men with testicular cancer now survive, thanks to treatment including cisplatin.

We make a major breakthrough in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma. Our researchers at Barts Hospital in London play a key role in the development of combination chemotherapy, revolutionising treatment and survival for the disease and changing the way that many other cancers are treated too.

Our doctors publish results of a ten-year trial showing that ‘lumpectomy’ surgery is just as effective as removing the whole breast for treating early breast cancer, changing the way women are treated. 

Scientists at our London Research Institute (now part of the Francis Crick Institute) discover that leukaemias can be grouped according to the different molecules carried by the cancer cells, revolutionising diagnosis and forging the way for personalised treatment. 

We show that asbestos causes a type of lung cancer called mesothelioma, helping to lead to stricter regulations on this dangerous substance. 

Finding the first human cancer virus

In 1964 our scientists discover the first human cancer virus - Epstein-Barr virus.   The virus causes some types of lymphoma and cancer of the nasal cavity, and our researchers are now working on vaccines to treat these diseases.  

We’re the first to use a combination of two drugs – methotrexate and mercaptopurine – to treat a rare cancer that can occur in pregnancy called choriocarcinoma. The survival rate for this cancer doubled within a few years and it is now curable in almost all cases.

Also in this decade, we open our flagship research institutes in London, Manchester and Glasgow.  

Pioneering chemotherapy, staging and screening

We support pathologist Dr Cuthbert Dukes and senior surgeon Mr J.P Lockhart-Mummery, who devise the world-famous ‘Dukes staging’ to classify bowel cancer. This approach is still used today in planning the treatment and care of people with cancer. 

Our scientists run some of the earliest studies of cervical screening in the 1950s. Their work helped the development of the UK's cervical cancer screening programme, which saves thousands of lives every year.  

Also in the 1950s, smoking is linked with lung cancer for the first time. Professor Sir Richard Doll starts a 50-year study of the risks of smoking and the benefits of quitting, later working with another world leader in the field, Professor Sir Richard Peto.  

1940s -
Where it all began

The Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) forms in 1902, driven by doctors and surgeons concerned about the suffering and loss of life from cancer. Their work focuses on studying cancer in the lab to find new approaches for treatment. 

For example, ICRF researchers carry out tests using radium bromide to treat tumours in mice in 1904 – one of the earliest examples of research into radiotherapy in the lab.

In 1911, our researchers discover that some cases of breast cancer in mice run in families, suggesting that there might be a hereditary component to the disease.  However, the first inherited breast cancer gene, BRCA1, isn’t found until 1994.

In the 1920s a different organisation is set up, the British Empire Cancer Campaign, focusing on testing new treatments in patients. Eventually this became The Cancer Research Campaign, which merges with the ICRF in 2002 to become Cancer Research UK.  

The Cancer Research Campaign awards its first grants for the purchase of radium to treat cervical cancer in 1923, also funding the work of radiotherapy pioneer Valentine Mayneord in the 1930s. Today, around four in ten patients receive radiotherapy and it cures more people than chemotherapy.

In 1925 our scientists at St Mark’s Hospital publish some of the first family trees of people affected by hereditary bowel cancer, paving the way for the eventual identification of genes linked to the disease, such as APC in the 1980s. 

They also pioneer a technique for taking samples of bowel tumours using a sigmoidoscope (a special tube used to look inside the bowel) – the fore-runner of modern diagnosis and screening.

In the aftermath of World War I, our researchers discover new chemicals based on mustard gas, leading to the development of three important chemotherapy drugs: chlorambucilmelphalan and busulfan.  These drugs are still used today to treat some cancers affecting the blood and immune system. 

Our researchers identify cancer-causing chemicals in tar – the first known carcinogens – back in 1930. 

We issue our first warning on the link between sun exposure and skin cancer back in 1935. This message still forms the basis of our current SunSmart campaign. 

In the 30s and 40s, our researchers make important breakthroughs in creating synthetic hormones, laying the foundations for today’s hormone therapies for breast and prostate cancers. 

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