Birthday cake

Cancer Research UK is ten, but our history stretches back to 1902

This week marks ten years since the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) merged to form Cancer Research UK. We’re now the world’s largest independent organisation dedicated to cancer research.

Over the past decade, we’ve joined forces with scientists, doctors and nurses across the globe to make great progress in the fight against cancer, and our research has changed people’s lives.

For example, we’ve tracked down new gene faults linked to cancer, our clinical trials have transformed the way that patients are treated, and drugs that were originally discovered and developed by our scientists are now used in hospitals around the world.

And our achievements haven’t just been restricted to research. Thanks to determined campaigning by our supporters, landmark smoke-free legislation was introduced in the UK in 2007. This is arguably the greatest public health achievement of the century, let alone the decade, and will save thousands of lives.

But that’s not all

Although we’re proud to be celebrating our tenth anniversary, in actual fact we have a much greater heritage stretching back to the turn of the last century.

The organisation that became the Imperial Cancer Research Fund was set up in 1902 by the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians who were concerned about the suffering caused by cancer. In the 1920s, a group of doctors and scientists decided they wanted to focus more heavily on clinical research rather than the more fundamental biological research that was going on in the ICRF’s labs.

In what was a controversial move at the time, they formed a separate charity – the British Empire Cancer Campaign – that was later renamed the Cancer Research Campaign. Eighty years later the two charities merged to become one again, completing the circle.

Exciting times

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a revolution in cancer research. As technology has become more sophisticated, so the pace of progress has increased.

Thirty years ago, scientists hunting for specific gene faults linked to cancer could spend many years on their search. Today, scientists can sequence a whole patient’s genome in a week or so, for a fraction of the cost.

Over the years, our scientists have been at the forefront of research into cancer genes, playing vital roles in the discovery of many important genetic faults that drive the disease. In turn, this has been a springboard for new ways to prevent, detect and treat different types of cancer.

Furthermore, our scientists helped establish and shape the use of many of the treatments that are used today, including advances in radiotherapy and significant cancer drugs such as cisplatin, carboplatin, tamoxifen and temozolomide.

And – most importantly of all – thanks to advances in diagnosis and treatment driven by research, survival from cancer has doubled over recent decades.

Looking back

It’s an exciting time to be working in cancer, and today’s researchers owe much to their predecessors, building on key discoveries made in the past. So what have been our key milestones of the past one hundred years? It’s hard to choose, but here’s a small selection. You can find out more on our progress and achievements pages.

  • In the 1920s and 1930s, we supported some of the earliest research into treating cancer with radiation. This pioneering research laid the foundations for modern radiotherapy. Today, more than 4 out of ten cancer patients receive radiotherapy, and the treatment cures more people than chemotherapy.
  • We issued our first warning on the link between sun exposure and skin cancer back in 1935. Most cases of skin cancer are caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun or sunbeds, and this continues to be the basis of our SunSmart campaign today.
  • Our scientists showed how synthetic hormones could be used to treat breast cancer in 1945. Hormone therapy continues to be an important form of treatment for breast and prostate cancer today.
  • In 1950, landmark research linked smoking to lung cancer for the first time. Since then we’ve funded decades of research highlighting the long-term risks of smoking and the benefits of quitting. Today, we know that smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer worldwide, and that half of all smokers will die from cancer or other smoking-related illnesses.
  • In the 1950s, we funded work that led to the development of three important chemotherapy drugs: chlorambucil, melphalan and busulphan. These drugs are still used today to treat some leukaemias, myeloma and lymphoma, and recent studies have shown melphalan and busulphan could dramatically improve survival in children with neuroblastoma.
  • In the 1980s our scientists created temozolomide – now used worldwide to treat a common type of brain cancer. Around the same time, we discovered and developed carboplatin, still used to treat ovarian cancer where it has a major impact on survival.

Many of these discoveries show how cancer treatment improved over the first half of the century. But as clinical practice was evolving, the second half of the century saw a revolution in our understanding of what actually makes cancer tick. And we’re proud that our laboratory scientists were leading the way.

  • In 1963, Cancer Research-UK-funded scientists discovered the first human cancer virus. Up to a fifth of all cancers worldwide are now known to be linked to viruses and bacteria.
  • In1979, our scientists discovered the p53 protein, which is faulty or inactivated in many cancers. This groundbreaking discovery has led to the development of treatments that are being tested in clinical trials today.
  • Over the years, our scientists have helped to find a number of important cancer genes, such as APC which increases the risk of bowel cancer, and BRCA1 and BRCA2 which increase the risk of breast cancer. This knowledge has helped doctors identify people at risk of these diseases and inform how best to screen and treat them. These are just a few of the hundreds of genetic discoveries our scientists have made over the years, laying the foundation for our new understanding of cancer.
  • For many years, our scientists have played a leading role in research on the ‘immortality enzyme’ telomerase, so called because it allows cells to multiply continuously. Telomerase is switched on in 8 out of 10 cancers, including many cases of lung, bowel and breast cancer. Our researchers are now looking at ways of switching off the telomerase gene in order to kill cancer cells.
  • In 2001, two of our scientists – Sir Tim Hunt and Sir Paul Nurse – won a share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition of their cutting-edge research into the regulation of cell growth. This fundamental work has paved the way for future cancer treatments which are now being tested in clinical trials.

A decade ago the Cancer Research Campaign, with its deep clinical knowledge, and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, with its molecular expertise, came back together to form Cancer Research UK. This formed a unique organisation, fully set up to help translate lab-based molecular research into treatments that save lives.

Here are some of our key achievements since then:

  • Together with our supporters, we successfully campaigned for smokefree legislation so that people are no longer exposed to cigarette smoke at work and in public places.
  • Abiraterone, a drug we discovered and developed, reached a milestone stage of development with a trial showing it can give prostate cancer patients valuable extra months of life. We’re now pushing for this to be made available on the NHS.
  • The government agreed to add the Flexi-scope test to the bowel cancer screening programme in England. Years of research have shown it could prevent thousands of deaths every year.
  • We proved that tamoxifen can help to prevent breast cancer in high-risk women over the long term. And we showed that women with early breast cancer can benefit from fewer but larger doses of radiotherapy, meaning shorter treatment schedules and fewer hospital visits.
  • Our scientists found faults in a gene called BRAF are involved in more than half of all cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Drugs targeting BRAF are now showing exciting promise in clinical trials.
  • We funded the largest-ever trial for people with operable pancreatic cancer, which resulted in a worldwide change in the way that the disease is treated, helping to improve survival.
  • We funded one of the largest ever clinical trials testing the benefits of chemotherapy for bowel cancer, which changed the way some patients with bowel cancer are treated.
  • Together with our supporters, we successfully campaigned for the introduction of the Sunbed Regulation Act, protecting children from the dangers of sunbeds by banning under-18s from using them.

The future

Where do we go from here? What do the next ten or even 100 years hold in store? Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to look that far ahead, but the outcomes of our stratified medicine programme and the International Cancer Genome Consortium projects would be a good place to start. It’s clear that the future of cancer treatment is to make it ever more tailored to the individual patient, and these projects are important steps along that path.

Putting the spotlight on early diagnosis will also help make sure that more cancers are diagnosed earlier, when the disease is easier to treat. Keeping tobacco control high on the political agenda will also ensure more lives are saved from smoking.

And the Francis Crick Institute, of which we’re a founding partner, holds great promise for the future of cancer research. We’ll eagerly be waiting for research to start there when it opens its doors in a few years. This world-class facility will bring together some of the greatest minds in science and will be a landmark in this century’s efforts to improve health for humankind.

We hope research at the Francis Crick Institute and elsewhere will help answer some of the key challenges we still face, such as overcoming drug resistance and helping to stop cancers from spreading, as well as answer new questions, such as how to tackle different types of cells within a tumour. We’ve committed to raise £100m over the next four years to help make this a reality and we’ll need your help to get there, so watch this space!

Big changes are afoot, too, in the way our health service adapts to the needs of our ageing population, greater patient choice, and to the cost of new cancer treatments. We will make sure we campaign hard to keep the needs of cancer patients at the forefront of our politicians’ minds as they try to square this difficult circle.

Unfortunately, like many organisations at the moment, we’re feeling the financial pinch and we continue to rely on the public’s extraordinary generosity to continue our progress in beating cancer.

But we believe that through our research, and with your support, we can continue to bring benefits to cancer patients and save more lives for many years to come.

Josephine Querido, Science Communications Manager