While knowledge of cancer and initial treatment interventions have been around for hundreds of years, it is only within the last two centuries that significant advances in cancer treatment have taken place. From surgery through to the latest in immunotherapy, learn more about the timeline of cancer treatment breakthroughs below.
Timeline of cancer treatment breakthroughs
Anaesthesia became widely available, with surgery becoming the treatment of choice over the next century.
The radical mastectomy procedure was developed, revolutionising the treatment of primary breast cancer.
Oophorectomy (surgical removal of the ovaries) was established as a treatment for breast cancer, identifying the link between the hormone oestrogen and breast cancer and paving the way for modern hormone therapy treatment.
German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen unveiled the ‘x-ray’ and within months, systems were developed to harness the x-ray and use this for diagnosis. Over the following three years, doctors began using radiation for the treatment of cancer.
The first successful brachytherapy treatment was delivered. Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiation therapy, where a radioactive source is placed beside or inside the tumour to deliver radiation over a period of time.
The first less invasive laparoscopic surgical procedures on humans were published.
Benefits of fractionated radiation therapy treatments were identified, where smaller doses of radiation are delivered over several weeks (allowing time for healthy cells to repair themselves).
The link between prostate cancer and the hormone testosterone was identified. This led to the development of drugs that block male hormones to effectively treat prostate cancer over the following decades.
Nitrogen mustard, a compound related to mustard gas, was found to successfully treat lymphoma. This lead to the development of several more effective ‘alkylating’ chemotherapy agents.
The compound aminopterin, a predecessor to common chemotherapy drug methotrexate, was first used on children with acute leukaemia which resulted in remission. This was a pivotal moment in the development of modern chemotherapy.
Metastatic (advanced) cancer was first cured using a chemotherapy drug known as methotrexate.
Intraoperative radiation therapy treatment was introduced. This involves the delivery of radiation during the surgical removal of a tumour.
Imaging tests such as ultrasound and CT, MRI and PET scans began replacing the need for exploratory surgeries. Surgery also began to move towards less radical procedures, such as lumpectomy rather than radical mastectomy for breast cancer.
Adjuvant chemotherapy was successfully used in the treatment of breast cancer. This was also the year that monoclonal antibodies (replicas of proteins made by the body’s immune system to fight viruses) were first produced, which lead to the development of antibody-based immunotherapies for cancer over the following decades.
The antibody and antigen that would lead to the development of immunotherapy drug Rituxan were discovered. Rituxan was the first therapeutic antibody approved for oncology patients and is used in the treatment of lymphoma.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy was invented, a highly precise radiation therapy technique which delivers high doses of radiation to cancerous tumours, while limiting the impact of radiation on healthy surrounding tissue.
The clinical immune targeted antibody Herceptin was developed. Herceptin is regarded as a revolutionary immunotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
A new radiation therapy technique, known as stereotactic radiation therapy, was invented. By using precise technology stereotactic radiation therapy can be delivered in one to five treatments, compared to traditional radiation therapy which delivers smaller doses over many weeks.
Herceptin was approved by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic HER2+ breast cancer.
Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) mutations were discovered in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), allowing personalised cancer treatments to be directly targeted to this biomarker (e.g. EGFR inhibitors).
Bevacizumab, the first anti-angiogenic drug for the treatment of colon cancer, was approved.
Gefitinib was approved for EGFR mutation-positive patients, following a milestone IPASS trial which confirmed the role of EGFR-TKIs in first line targeted therapy for patients with EGFR.
The first autologous immunotherapy was approved for prostate cancer (Sipuleucel-T).
The first checkpoint inhibitor (Ipilimumab, a CTLA-4 inhibitor protein) was approved for metastatic melanoma.
Adaptive radiation therapy, a type of image-guided radiation therapy that allows radiation oncologists to replan and optimise the treatment during the course, was introduced.
The first immunotherapy PD-1 inhibitor (Nivolumab and Pembrolizumab) for metastatic melanoma was approved.
The 2018 Nobel Prize was awarded to two cancer immunotherapy researchers, Dr James P. Allison, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for the discovery of CTLA-4, and Dr. Tasuku Honjo , Kyoto University in Japan, for the discovery of PD-1.
Cancer research plays an important role in the development of new cancer treatment breakthroughs. As Singapore’s only private provider delivering cancer clinical trials, Icon is dedicated to providing hope and opportunity for cancer patients to access new treatments and helping us to improve cancer care for people now and into the future. It is these trials and the doctors and patients involved today, that advance the way we can treat cancer tomorrow. For more information on clinical trials at Icon, visit our Research page.
To learn more about the treatments we offer at Icon, click here.
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- Richard R. Love, John Philips, Oophorectomy for Breast Cancer: History Revisited, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 94, Issue 19, 2 October 2002, Pages 1433–1434, https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/94.19.1433
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