Advancing Cancer Research:

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Oncology Timeline

   Since the earliest days of human history, scientists and physicians alike have been working to unlock the cure for cancer. Over time, the learnings and knowledge they accumulated have saved millions of lives and informed many standard of care methods currently used today. Read more about key milestones that shaped cancer research and treatment, and how scientists are applying the learnings of yesterday to advance cancer research today and tomorrow.

EA4C17
The Beginnings of Cancer Treatment

2600 B.C.

The Beginnings of Cancer Treatment 

As early as 2600 B.C., Egyptian physician Imhotep used the body’s immune system to fight cancer by inducing an infection. According to the Ebers Papyrus, the recommended treatment for tumors was a poultice, which is a soft, moist mass of material that typically contains herbs and is placed on the skin to relieve soreness and inflammation. This was followed by an incision to facilitate the development of infection in the desired location and cause regression of the tumor.

2600 B.C.
The Beginnings of Cancer Treatment

The Beginnings of Cancer Treatment 

As early as 2600 B.C., Egyptian physician Imhotep used the body’s immune system to fight cancer by inducing an infection. According to the Ebers Papyrus, the recommended treatment for tumors was a poultice, which is a soft, moist mass of material that typically contains herbs and is placed on the skin to relieve soreness and inflammation. This was followed by an incision to facilitate the development of infection in the desired location and cause regression of the tumor.

1882

Radical Surgery to Remove Tumors

Following the invention of anesthesia, three surgeons, Dr. Theodor Billroth, Dr. William Halsted and Dr. William Handley, lead the charge in cancer operations to remove the entire tumor with lymph nodes. Dr. Billroth is considered a pioneer of gastric cancer surgery while Dr. Halsted introduces the first radical mastectomy for breast cancer, based on the work from Dr. William Handley, who believed cancer spread outward by invasion from the original growth. For the first half of the 20th century, surgery is the only option for cancer treatment.

1882

Radical Surgery to Remove Tumors

Following the invention of anesthesia, three surgeons, Dr. Theodor Billroth, Dr. William Halsted and Dr. William Handley, lead the charge in cancer operations to remove the entire tumor with lymph nodes. Dr. Billroth is considered a pioneer of gastric cancer surgery while Dr. Halsted introduces the first radical mastectomy for breast cancer, based on the work from Dr. William Handley, who believed cancer spread outward by invasion from the original growth. For the first half of the 20th century, surgery is the only option for cancer treatment.

The Origins of Modern Immunotherapy: William B. Coley, M.D.
1891
The Origins of Modern Immunotherapy: William B. Coley, M.D.

The Origins of Modern Immunotherapy: William B. Coley, M.D.

Dr. William B. Coley uses killed bacteria, called “Coley’s Toxins,” to stimulate an immune response to attack and shrink tumors in patients.

1898

Discovery of Radiation Therapy

Physicists Marie and Pierre Curie discover a chemical element known as radium, which is later shown to be an effective treatment for cancer in small doses. This discovery continues to serve as the basis of modern radiation treatment used today.

 

1898
Discovery of Radiation Therapy

Discovery of Radiation Therapy

Physicists Marie and Pierre Curie discover a chemical element known as radium, which is later shown to be an effective treatment for cancer in small doses. This discovery continues to serve as the basis of modern radiation treatment used today.

 

First Chemotherapy Approved by the FDA

1949

First Chemotherapy Approved by the FDA

Nitrogen mustard (mechlorethamine) becomes the first chemotherapy approved by the FDA. Chemotherapies eventually become a standard of care therapy in numerous tumor types, and continue to be an important part of cancer treatment for many patients today.

1949
First Chemotherapy Approved by the FDA

First Chemotherapy Approved by the FDA

Nitrogen mustard (mechlorethamine) becomes the first chemotherapy approved by the FDA. Chemotherapies eventually become a standard of care therapy in numerous tumor types, and continue to be an important part of cancer treatment for many patients today.

New Cancer Treatments Approved by the FDA

1952-1980

New Cancer Treatments Approved by the FDA

Advances in cancer research drive a wave of new cancer drug approvals, with more than 20 new therapies launched over the next three decades.

1952-1980
New Cancer Treatments Approved by the FDA

New Cancer Treatments Approved by the FDA

Advances in cancer research drive a wave of new cancer drug approvals, with more than 20 new therapies launched over the next three decades.

The First Complete Cure of a Human Solid Tumor
1953
The First Complete Cure of a Human Solid Tumor

The First Complete Cure of a Human Solid Tumor

National Cancer Institute researchers Roy Hertz and Min Chiu Li are the first to completely cure a human solid tumor with chemotherapy.

1957

Theory of Immune Surveillance Proposed

Macfarlane Burnet first describes the modern theory of immunotherapy, finding that cancer cells are recognized by the immune system, but acquired tolerance prevents clearance in patients with cancer.

1957
Theory of Immune Surveillance Proposed

Theory of Immune Surveillance Proposed

Macfarlane Burnet first describes the modern theory of immunotherapy, finding that cancer cells are recognized by the immune system, but acquired tolerance prevents clearance in patients with cancer.

First Application of Combination Chemotherapy

1964

First Application of Combination Chemotherapy

Emil Frei and Emil Freireich give a combination of chemotherapy treatments to children with leukemia, which leads to curative therapies for acute childhood leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and germ cell cancers.

1964
First Application of Combination Chemotherapy

First Application of Combination Chemotherapy

Emil Frei and Emil Freireich give a combination of chemotherapy treatments to children with leukemia, which leads to curative therapies for acute childhood leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and germ cell cancers.

Nixon Declares War on Cancer
1971
Nixon Declares War on Cancer

Nixon Declares War on Cancer

President Richard Nixon signs the National Cancer Act, declaring war on cancer. The law strengthens the National Cancer Institute and increases its budgetary authority.

1984

First Patient Dosed With IL-2 Therapy

A 33-year-old woman with metastatic melanoma receives an infusion of recombinant IL-2. After a few months, all evidence of cancer is gone. This is the first time a purely immunologic maneuver is used to mediate the destruction of large, invasive cancers in humans. The IL-2 therapy is eventually approved by the FDA in 1992.

1984
First Patient Dosed With IL-2 Therapy

First Patient Dosed With IL-2 Therapy

A 33-year-old woman with metastatic melanoma receives an infusion of recombinant IL-2. After a few months, all evidence of cancer is gone. This is the first time a purely immunologic maneuver is used to mediate the destruction of large, invasive cancers in humans. The IL-2 therapy is eventually approved by the FDA in 1992.

First Approved Immunotherapy Drug for Advanced Cancer
1986
First Approved Immunotherapy Drug for Advanced Cancer

First Approved Immunotherapy Drug for Advanced Cancer

The FDA approves the first immunotherapy drug, alfa-interferon, to treat rare, hairy cell leukemia.

1987

HER-2 Gene Shown to be Amplified in Breast Cancer 

Cancer researchers discover that the growth receptor gene HER-2 is present at high levels in approximately 30 percent of breast cancers. Dr. Dennis Slamon and his team discover that blocking HER-2 through a specific antibody could slow the growth of metastatic breast cancer cells and other types of cancer in a laboratory dish.

1987
HER-2 Gene Shown to be Amplified in Breast Cancer

HER-2 Gene Shown to be Amplified in Breast Cancer 

Cancer researchers discover that the growth receptor gene HER-2 is present at high levels in approximately 30 percent of breast cancers. Dr. Dennis Slamon and his team discover that blocking HER-2 through a specific antibody could slow the growth of metastatic breast cancer cells and other types of cancer in a laboratory dish.

National Cancer Institute Signs CRADA to Develop a Taxane-Based Chemotherapy
1991
National Cancer Institute Signs CRADA to Develop a Taxane-Based Chemotherapy

National Cancer Institute Signs CRADA to Develop a Taxane-Based Chemotherapy

The National Cancer Institute signs a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Bristol-Myers Squibb to help develop a taxane-based chemotherapy originally derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. The medicine is eventually approved for multiple indications, including breast, ovarian and lung cancer. Over time, taxane-based chemotherapy has become a mainstay in cancer treatment due to its unique mechanism of action.

1992

PD-1 Immune Checkpoint Receptor Discovered

Tasuku Honjo and his team of researchers at Kyoto University discover the PD-1 immune checkpoint receptor and its role in programmed cell death, helping researchers better understand its function in the immune system.

1992
PD-1 Immune Checkpoint Receptor Discovered

PD-1 Immune Checkpoint Receptor Discovered

Tasuku Honjo and his team of researchers at Kyoto University discover the PD-1 immune checkpoint receptor and its role in programmed cell death, helping researchers better understand its function in the immune system.

CAR-T Is Born
1993
CAR-T Is Born

CAR-T Is Born

The first CAR-T cells are made by Israeli immunologist Zelig Eshhar. Eshhar and his colleagues demonstrate that CAR-T cell therapy could redirect T cell killing to foreign proteins.

Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) Suppresses Tumors

Napoleone Ferrara and his colleagues show that inhibiting VEGF, a protein that stimulates the growth of blood vessels, results in a dramatic suppression of tumor growth.

1996

Preclinical Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibition Demonstrated

University of California-Berkeley scientists Dana R. Leach, Matthew F. Krummel and James P. Allison publish the first study showing it’s possible to release the brakes on a specific molecule that protects cancer from detection by the immune system. They provide the first evidence that blocking the immune checkpoint CTLA-4 may allow the body to increase the immune response against tumor cells.

1996
Preclinical Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibition Demonstrated

Preclinical Activity of Immune Checkpoint Inhibition Demonstrated

University of California-Berkeley scientists Dana R. Leach, Matthew F. Krummel and James P. Allison publish the first study showing it’s possible to release the brakes on a specific molecule that protects cancer from detection by the immune system. They provide the first evidence that blocking the immune checkpoint CTLA-4 may allow the body to increase the immune response against tumor cells.

First Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor Clinical Trial
1998
First Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor Clinical Trial

First Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor Clinical Trial

Biochemist Nicholas Lyndon develops the first tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Tyrosine kinases are important mediators of biological processes and the deregulation of protein kinase activity is discovered to play a central role in the development of cancer. This research leads to a deep understanding of disease biology, including the role of the BCR-ABL fusion gene and Philadelphia chromosome in the development of leukemia. 

The first tyrosine kinase inhibitor is approved by the FDA in 2001 and is nicknamed the “magic bullet” as a result of its impact on the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia.

Clinical Trials See Success Targeting HER-2

Phase 3 trials of a HER-2-specific antibody have positive results in slowing the growth of breast cancer and early-stage HER-2 positive metastatic breast cancer.

 

First Anti-CTLA-4 Antibody Is Discovered

1999

First Anti-CTLA-4 Antibody Is Discovered

While at Medarex, scientists Alan Korman and Nils Lonberg discover the first anti-CTLA-4 antibody (or CTLA-4 inhibitor), based on the work of James Allison as well as Dr. Lonberg’s genetically engineered “transgenic mice” that have human antibody genes. The CTLA-4 inhibitor enters the clinic in 2000.

1999
First Anti-CTLA-4 Antibody Is Discovered

First Anti-CTLA-4 Antibody Is Discovered

While at Medarex, scientists Alan Korman and Nils Lonberg discover the first anti-CTLA-4 antibody (or CTLA-4 inhibitor), based on the work of James Allison as well as Dr. Lonberg’s genetically engineered “transgenic mice” that have human antibody genes. The CTLA-4 inhibitor enters the clinic in 2000.

First Molecularly Targeted Treatment Approved
2001
First Molecularly Targeted Treatment Approved

First Molecularly Targeted Treatment Approved

The FDA approves the first molecularly targeted drug for the treatment of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

2002

PD-1 Implicated in Tumor Immune Escape

Researchers from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation and Kyoto University publish a landmark paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which identifies the PD-1 pathway as a key mechanism in tumor immune escape.

2002
PD-1 Implicated in Tumor Immune Escape

PD-1 Implicated in Tumor Immune Escape

Researchers from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation and Kyoto University publish a landmark paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which identifies the PD-1 pathway as a key mechanism in tumor immune escape.

The Human Genome Project Concludes
2003
The Human Genome Project Concludes

The Human Genome Project Concludes

The Human Genome Project, the world’s largest collaborative biological project, concludes its 13-year program determining the sequence of chemical base pairs that make up human DNA and mapping the human genome. This research continues to help scientists identify genetic changes and malfunctions that contribute to cancer.

2004

EGFR Mutation Associated With Response to Therapy

A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Tom Lynch, generates a breakthrough discovery, confirming the EGFR mutation is associated with response to tyrosine kinase inhibitors in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. This discovery spurs a new wave of targeted cancer treatments and is often credited with the birth of precision medicine.

First VEGF-Inhibitor Receives FDA Approval for Colon Cancer 

Following successful Phase 3 trials of 925 untreated metastatic colon cancer patients, the first VEGF-inhibitor is approved by the FDA.

2004
EGFR Mutation Associated With Response to Therapy

EGFR Mutation Associated With Response to Therapy

A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Tom Lynch, generates a breakthrough discovery, confirming the EGFR mutation is associated with response to tyrosine kinase inhibitors in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. This discovery spurs a new wave of targeted cancer treatments and is often credited with the birth of precision medicine.

First VEGF-Inhibitor Receives FDA Approval for Colon Cancer 

Following successful Phase 3 trials of 925 untreated metastatic colon cancer patients, the first VEGF-inhibitor is approved by the FDA.

The Cancer Genome Atlas Launches
2005
The Cancer Genome Atlas Launches

The Cancer Genome Atlas Launches

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), is initiated to map out key genomic changes in 33 different tumor types. Over the course of 12 years, the project generates more than 2.5 petabytes of data which benefits thousands of researchers in the fight against cancer.

PD-L1 Identified as a Biomarker of Response to Anti-PD-1 Therapy

2010

PD-L1 Identified as a Biomarker of Response to Anti-PD-1 Therapy

An early clinical study evaluating PD-1 inhibition provides the first piece of evidence that expression of PD-L1 (a cell surface protein involved in immune response) may be a predictive biomarker of response to I-O therapy. This finding is later validated in subsequent studies.

2010
PD-L1 Identified as a Biomarker of Response to Anti-PD-1 Therapy

PD-L1 Identified as a Biomarker of Response to Anti-PD-1 Therapy

An early clinical study evaluating PD-1 inhibition provides the first piece of evidence that expression of PD-L1 (a cell surface protein involved in immune response) may be a predictive biomarker of response to I-O therapy. This finding is later validated in subsequent studies.

First Approved CTLA-4 Inhibitor
2011
First Approved CTLA-4 Inhibitor

First Approved CTLA-4 Inhibitor

In March 2011, the FDA approves the first anti-CTLA-4 therapy in the United States. The approval encourages further study of I-O treatments and drives more than one thousand clinical trials in the years that follow.

2013

Initiation of I-O/I-O Combination Clinical Trials

Initiation of the first late-stage I-O/I-O combination clinical trials combining a CTLA-4 inhibitor with a PD-1 inhibitor. This trial contributes to the approval of the first I-O/I-O combination treatment in 2015.

Cancer Immunotherapy Named “Breakthrough of the Year”

Science Magazine names cancer immunotherapy as the “Breakthrough of the Year” following a period of significant advancement in I-O research.

2013
Initiation of I-O/I-O Combination Clinical Trials

Initiation of I-O/I-O Combination Clinical Trials

Initiation of the first late-stage I-O/I-O combination clinical trials combining a CTLA-4 inhibitor with a PD-1 inhibitor. This trial contributes to the approval of the first I-O/I-O combination treatment in 2015.

Cancer Immunotherapy Named “Breakthrough of the Year”

Science Magazine names cancer immunotherapy as the “Breakthrough of the Year” following a period of significant advancement in I-O research.

First Approved PD-1 Inhibitors
2014
First Approved PD-1 Inhibitors

First Approved PD-1 Inhibitors

Following the approval of the first anti-CTLA-4 therapy three years earlier, the first anti-PD-1 therapies are approved by the FDA. Today, there are five FDA-approved anti-PD-1 (or anti-PD-L1) therapies approved to treat patients.

2016

CAR-T Cells Show Promise in Blood Cancers

Multiple clinical trials show CAR-T cell therapy has promising results in treating patients with relapsed or refractory B cell malignancies, including acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which typically all have a poor prognosis despite the use of aggressive therapies.

2016
CAR-T Cells Show Promise in Blood Cancers

CAR-T Cells Show Promise in Blood Cancers

Multiple clinical trials show CAR-T cell therapy has promising results in treating patients with relapsed or refractory B cell malignancies, including acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which typically all have a poor prognosis despite the use of aggressive therapies.

FDA Approves First Therapy Based on Tumor Agnostic Genetic Information
2017
FDA Approves First Therapy Based on Tumor Agnostic Genetic Information

FDA Approves First Therapy Based on Tumor Agnostic Genetic Information

The FDA approves the first therapy based on a patient’s tumor’s genetic information, rather than the type or location of the tumor within the body.

2018

Nobel Prize Awarded for Immuno-Oncology Discoveries

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo are awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that led to the development of I-O therapies.

2018
Nobel Prize Awarded for Immuno-Oncology Discoveries

Nobel Prize Awarded for Immuno-Oncology Discoveries

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo are awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that led to the development of I-O therapies.

Today
Advances Continue in the Scientific Discovery of New Cancer Treatments
Asset 1
Uncovering Insights to Inform Drug Discovery:
The scientific community is working to answer key questions in critical areas of drug discovery, and in turn, generate better hypotheses and clinical trials that help drive efficient clinical development.
Asset 2
Embracing Technology for Cancer Research:
Modern technology has finally caught up with complex science, allowing for multifaceted data-driven analyses. This technology can produce information at a rapid rate and help answer some of the most complex questions in cancer research as scientists work to improve patient care.
Asset 3
Exploring Novel Oncology Mechanisms:
As researchers learn more about the interaction between cancer and the immune system, more targets and pathways are emerging as potential areas of research. Additionally, many scientists are trying to determine whether combination approaches - including combinations of I-O, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapies - may more effectively activate an anti-tumor response.
Asset 4
Developing Precision Approaches:
The scientific community is committed to helping find the right treatment for the right patient at the right time. Researchers are working with urgency to identify genetic markers which may help inform the best treatment approach for patients.
Tomorrow
While we have come so far in the fight against cancer, in many ways we're just at the beginning. Through additional validation, continued research into existing therapies, the exploration of novel combinations and the application of translational medicine, the goal of making a precision treatment approach avaliable for all patients is reachable. And we will not stop until more and more patients are able to prevail over cancer and other serious diseases.
2030
2040
2050
2060
2070