Research into cancer, the second leading cause of death worldwide, has been ongoing for centuries. Each discovery and development has brought us one step closer to understanding the complexities of cancer and paved the way for creating ground-breaking new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. As a result, many lives have been saved and improved. Here we look at 10 of the top medical advancements in cancer research history so far:
1. The first radical mastectomy - 1882
One of the greatest influences on cancer surgery occurred in 1894, when William Halsted performed the first radical mastectomy for a breast cancer patient. This remained a standard operation to treat breast cancer until the 1970’s, when it was shown in clinical trials that less extensive surgery plus radiation therapy was just as effective at treating breast cancer.
2. The discovery of radium – 1898
The era of radiation treatment began in 1895, when German physicist Wilhelm Roentge discovered x-rays. This was then accelerated in 1898, when Pierre and Marie Curie uncovered radium. This revealed a new phase for scientific research into the structure of an atom and led to the discovery that radiation could both cause and kill cancer cells.
3. The ‘Pap smear’ test developed – 1928
In 1928, George Papanicolaou made the discovery that by examining cells from the cervix under a microscope, cervical cancer could be detected. This led to the invention of the ‘Pap smear’ test which means that cervical cancer can be detected at an early stage. Today, the Pap smear test remains a routine screening procedure and is estimated to prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing.
4. Hormonal therapy introduced – 1941
The use of hormones in cancer treatment was first introduced when Canadian-American physician, Charles Huggins, discovered the relationship between hormones and prostate tumours. Hormonal therapy remains a common way to treat cancers that use hormones to grow, such as some prostate and breast cancers.
5. The discovery of nitrogen mustard - 1946
In 1946, a team of scientists from the Sloan-Kettering Institute found that nitrogen mustards could be used to treat certain types of cancer by killing cells that chemically modify DNA. Three years later, in 1949, the FDA approved nitrogen mustard (also known as mechlorethamine) for treating cancer, paving the way for chemotherapy.
6. Combination chemotherapy launches – 1958
Emil Frei and his colleagues demonstrated that treatment with multiple chemotherapy agents could lead to lasting remissions and prolong survival in children and adults with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Combination chemotherapy is now a standard approach for treating many cancers in both children and adults.
7. The p53 gene discovered – 1979
In 1979, a breakthrough in science came when the p53 gene, which is the most commonly mutated gene in cancer, was discovered. It was revealed to be a tumour-suppressor gene, meaning its protein product, p53, could help control cell proliferation and suppress tumour growth. This was a significant finding and led to great research into the immunology of cancer.
8. The beginning of CAR T cell therapy – 2002
In 2002, researchers Michel Sadelain, Renier Brentjens and Isabelle Rivière began to develop genetically engineered T cells with a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which later turned into CAR T cell therapy. CAR T is a promising new way to get T cells to fight cancer by altering them to be able to find and destroy cancer cells. CAR T cell therapy became FDA approved in 2017 to treat some kinds of lymphomas and for certain patients with relapsed or advanced leukaemia.
9. The first human cancer treatment vaccine - 2010
In 2010, the FDA approved Sipuleucel-T, a cancer treatment vaccine that is made using a patient's own immune system cells. This is used to treat metastatic prostate cancer that no longer responds to hormonal therapy. It is the first, and so far, only human cancer treatment vaccine to be approved.
10. DNA-sequencing test launches - 2017
The first DNA-sequencing test was approved by the FDA in 2017. Developed by researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the test looks for genetic mutations and other modifications in patients’ tumours. This data is then used to help guide treatment plans, opening the door for precision medicine (also known as personalised medicine) approaches which show great promise for the future of cancer treatments.