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How the ICR’s pioneering drug research is changing lives

The ICR has discovered more new cancer drugs than any other academic institution globally, and led the underpinning science for many more cancer treatments. We have helped lead clinical trials of these drugs and many others – taking them to cancer patients as quickly as possible.

Our work has transformed the lives of cancer patients across the world, helping many live longer, better lives and giving them precious time with their loved ones.

We spoke to three people who have benefited from our research, about what it means to them.

The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery is a £75m build – and we now have less than £2m to raise. To make our building a reality, we urgently need your philanthropic support. 

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‘I hope to live 10 years’

The prostate cancer drug abiraterone is one of the ICR’s biggest success stories. Discovered and jointly developed by our researchers, it was the first treatment shown to be effective in men with advanced prostate cancer.

It’s now used as standard treatment for advanced prostate cancer, and has helped extend the lives of more than 400,000 men with advanced prostate cancer across the world.

Rob has benefited from abiraterone for more than six years.


“Abiraterone has given me hope. When I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, I hoped I would survive for five years. I have now survived six.

Not only have I survived, I have been living and enjoying life, and having a great quality of life.  I am now hoping I will survive 10 years, and if I am really lucky, 15 years.”

At the time of Rob’s diagnosis, abiraterone was still a very new drug. It was approved for use on the NHS in 2012, but work on it began in the 1990s when scientists at the ICR were looking for ways to shut off production of male sex hormones, which drive prostate cancer.

The ICR team discovered that abiraterone was particularly good at switching off testosterone production. Later clinical trials, led by the ICR and The Royal Marsden, showed that up to 70 per cent of men responded to abiraterone – with scans showing their tumours decreased in size, and their PSA levels dropped substantially. PSA is a protein whose levels can rise in men if the cancer is becoming more aggressive.

“I would call myself a lucky man,” says Rob. “The drug brought down my testosterone level very quickly, and also my PSA. It is less than 0.1 at the moment and has been so for six years, which is unbelievable.”

‘Keeping me chemo free’

The ICR’s science also underpinned the development of olaparib, a groundbreaking treatment for women with ovarian cancer.

Our researchers discovered how to genetically target olaparib – showing that it could attack a vulnerability in ovarian cancer in women with inherited BRCA mutations.

In 2004 it became the first licensed cancer drug directed against an inherited genetic fault – and since then 20,000 women with ovarian cancer worldwide who carry these BRCA mutations have received olaparib to treat their cancer.

Anne was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. She received surgery and chemotherapy, but two years later her cancer returned. Genetic testing identified that she carried a BRCA mutation, and she started taking olaparib in March 2018.  She now feels better than she has in years.


“Olaparib worked amazingly for me, and really quickly,” she says. “The fact it worked immediately put my mind at rest that it would extend my life. I’m hopeful that I’ll have a few years chemo free and feeling good with fewer side effects.”

Olaparib’s origins lie in ICR research into the BRCA genes in the 1990s, when our scientists tracked down the gene BRCA2.

ICR researchers then found that targeting a DNA repair protein called PARP was a potential way to kill cancer cells with a faulty BRCA gene. This helped lead to the development of olaparib, and other so-called PARP inhibitors.

The same ICR team also contributed to the refinement of PARP inhibitors, working with The Royal Marsden on early clinical trials of olaparib, with subsequent larger trials leading to the drug’s authorisation.

Innovative drugs like olaparib can make a huge difference to women who, like Anne, no longer respond to traditional chemotherapy: “My tumour markers had gone down by a third within the first month of treatment,” she says. “They’re now the lowest they have been in 18 months.

“I feel very lucky to have been able to get olaparib.”

'I can get on with my life'

The ICR’s experience in clinical trials also helped the innovative breast cancer drug palbociclib to reach patients.

Palbociclib is known as a first-in-class drug, because it’s the first drug to work in the way that it does – blocking two proteins, called CDK4 and CDK6, that help cancer cells divide and spread.

This innovation is already changing lives – more than 90,000 patients have been prescribed the drug.

Christine has been treated with palbociclib and hormone therapy since early 2018, and has seen the difference a targeted treatment can make: “I take my pill every morning, and I get on with my life,” she says. “It’s just a much more manageable, softer drug.”



Christine was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 but, nearly five years after surgery and chemotherapy left her cancer free, she found the disease had returned, and spread to her brain.

Following radiotherapy, she needed a targeted treatment to keep her cancer at bay. Fortunately, palbociclib had been approved for use on the NHS just months before, thanks to clinical trials that showed how palbociclib could benefit patients.

Researchers at the ICR and The Royal Marsden led a key clinical trial of palbociclib, showing that it could slow the progression of advanced breast cancer in conjunction with standard treatments, and substantially extended the lives of patients.

Christine is doing well on palbociclib: “I’m on the ninth cycle and my cancer is currently stable,” she says.

“I’m able to work part-time, and I can keep up my cycling, which I could never have done had I been on conventional therapy.”

Smarter, kinder treatments

All these stories demonstrate how well people can live with cancer thanks to new, innovative treatments that are both smarter and kinder.

That is why our researchers are dedicated to getting our discoveries into the clinic and to patients as quickly as possible, so that more people have stories like those of Rob, Anne and Christine.

Computer visualisation of Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery building

Computer visualisation of what the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery will look like when finished.

Help us finish our Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery

We are now building one of the world’s most important buildings for the discovery of revolutionary cancer treatments, here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London.

Providing a truly collaborative environment for more than 280 scientists, here we will create more and better drugs for cancer patients and overcome the problem of cancer evolution and drug resistance.

This is a £75m project – and we have to £15m left to raise so we can finish and equip the building. Find out how you can support us.

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abiraterone breast cancer prostate cancer olaparib drug discovery Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery Living with cancer
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