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From old science to new science - 110 years of cancer research


The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has been conducting world leading research since we opened our doors as The Cancer Hospital Research in 1909. Our former Digital Communications Intern, Francis Newman, takes a look at five of the major advances that took place here during the 20th century, which now form the basis of much of the work done by modern cancer researchers worldwide.

Posted on 26 February, 2019 by Francis Newman

Video: Our scientists based at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, conduct world-leading research every day.

Carcinogens in cigarette smoke

 We now know that exposure to certain chemicals, such as those found in cigarette smoke, can cause cancer. But at the start of the 20th century, scientists were not even sure that cancer-causing chemicals existed, and it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that research at the ICR identified the first carcinogens in smoke and coal tar.

Professor Sir Ernest Kennaway meticulously explored the constituents of coal tar and discovered that a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were cancer-causing agents.

One of these, a compound called benzo(a)pyrene, was the first pure carcinogen to be isolated, and the first to be found in cigarette smoke.

Discovering early chemotherapy drugs

We were the first in Europe to develop chemotherapeutic agents. We played a crucial role in the development of alkylating agents and cisplatins – two important classes of chemotherapy agents that remain in use today.

We discovered, and with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust developed, the chemotherapy drugs busulfan, chlorambucil, melphalan and carboplatin, which are still in use worldwide more than 50 years later.

The ICR has a complex and varied research strategy focused on four key areas of research to speed up our process in defeating cancer. 

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DNA damage causes cancer

Cancer cells replicate at an accelerated rate, often ignoring the normal controls on cell division and growth. Proteins within cells regulate growth and division, and were widely assumed to be the targets for cancer-causing chemicals.

However, research conducted at the ICR by Professor Philip Lawley and Professor Peter Brookes showed that cancer is in fact caused by damage to DNA, rather than to proteins. Their discovery, announced in a paper published in 1960, was made through working on mustard gas – which was known to cause cancer.

Function of the thymus

In the early 1960s, Professor Jaques Miller discovered the essential role of the thymus in our immune systems while working as a PhD student at the ICR.

The fundamental discovery of the key role that the thymus plays in the development of our immune system underpins our understanding of immunology, and has been essential to understanding diseases of the immune system like HIV/AIDS.

It also helps us to understand how the body protects itself from cancer, offering the possibility to exploit these processes in new cancer therapies. 

How cells become cancerous

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research led the way in identifying some of the key genes that cause cancers – called oncogenes.

Crucially, we discovered the important oncogene NRAS, and the mechanism by which members of the RAS family of oncogenes cause cells to become cancerous.

In the 1980s Professors Chris Marshall and Alan Hall began work on identifying human oncogenes. Professor Marshall’s team then investigated how the function of the mutated NRAS protein differed from that of normal RAS, and the role it played in causing cancers.


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