Medical Innovation Throughout History

Scientific discoveries fueled by investments in cancer research have netted new and better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer, steadily increasing survival rates and helping more people lead longer, healthier lives. These investments also produce substantial returns in other ways. Improved outcomes have resulted in gains to the U.S. economy through reduced spending on hospitalizations and physician care, and increased productivity.

Breakthrough Medicines

From the first chemotherapy in 1949 to the newest targeted treatments, breakthrough medicines have transformed cancer care and led to more people surviving cancer than ever before. Between 1988 and 2000, the life expectancy for cancer patients increased by approximately four years, translating to roughly 23 million additional life years and $1.9 trillion in value added to the economy. This important progress reflects breakthroughs across the continuum of care – from screening, early detection, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and now molecularly targeted therapies. To understand how far we have come and what is in store as cancer innovation accelerates, let’s look back at the medical milestones that have changed the face of cancer and are spurring new breakthroughs for the future.

Lakdawalla, Sun, Jena, Reyes, Goldman, Philipson. “An Economic Evaluation of the War on Cancer.” Journal of Health Economics. Vol 29, Issue 3, pages 333 – 346. May 2010.
Scroll to Explore
  • 1898Radium Cures!
  • 1947First-Ever Remission in Childhood Cancer
  • 1948Chemotherapy Research Leads to 1988 Nobel Prize
  • 1949First Chemotherapy Drug Approved
  • 1958Combination Chemotherapy Shown to “Cure” Leukemia
  • 1960Identification of the “Philadelphia Chromosome”
  • 1961Stunting the Growth of Cancer Cells
  • 1964The First Reported Cure of Hodgkin Lymphoma
  • 1965Innovation Cure Rate at 90%
  • 1975First Adjuvant Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
  • 1985Adjuvant Chemotherapy for Colorectal Cancer
  • 1986New Treatment Reduces the Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence
  • 1989New Treatments Allow More Cancer Patients to Stay on Their Chemotherapy Regimens
  • 1991Improving Quality of Life
  • 1992Taxanes Found to Extend Lives
  • 1997Biotech Holds Promise
  • 1998New Advances in Treating Breast Cancer
  • 2001A Major Breakthrough!
  • 2003First Targeted Therapies for Lung Cancer
  • 2004Angiogenesis Inhibitors Introduced
  • 2004Targeted Therapies for Colon Cancer
  • 2005Changing the Standard of Care in Lung Cancer
  • 2006Immunomodulatory Drugs Introduced for Multiple Myeloma
  • 2006Vaccine Approved to Prevent Cervical Cancer
  • 2010Treatment Advance in Melanoma
  • 2012Breakthrough Therapy Signed to Law
  • 2013Targeted Metastatic Melanoma Treatments
  • 2013New Therapies for Late Stage Lung Cancer Patients
  • 1890

  • 1895

  • 1900

  • 1905

  • 1910

  • 1915

  • 1920

  • 1925

  • 1930

  • 1935

  • 1940

  • 1945

  • 1950

  • 1955

  • 1960

  • 1965

  • 1970

  • 1975

  • 1980

  • 1985

  • 1990

  • 1995

  • 2000

  • 2005

  • 2010

  • 2015

  • 2020

  • 1898 - 1903

    Radium Cures!

    Marie and Pierre Curie discover radium. S.W. Goldberg and Efim London use radium to treat two basal cell carcinoma patients, effectively curing both patients.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
    Pierre and Marie Curie
  • 1947

    First-Ever Remission in Childhood Cancer

    Sidney Farber at Children’s Hospital in Boston treats a 4-year old girl with the drug aminopterin, producing the first partial remission in childhood leukemia. Dr. Farber then replicates this result in 10 other cases and publishes a landmark paper that paves the way for therapies that have increased the survival rates for acute lymphoblastic leukemia – the most common type of childhood leukemia – from less than 10% in the 1960’s to about 90% today.

    National Cancer Institute. Cancer in Children and Adolescents Fact Sheet.
    Childhood cancer
  • 1948

    Chemotherapy Research Leads to 1988 Nobel Prize

    George Hitchings synthesizes 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP), an immunosuppressive drug still used today to treat leukemia, pediatric non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and other diseases. In 1988, Hitchins’ discoveries in drug treatments specifically for chemotherapy win him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with two other colleagues.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
    Hitchings Elion 1948
  • 1949

    First Chemotherapy Drug Approved

    Following clinical trials conducted in 1946 and 1947, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves nitrogen mustard, also known as mustard gas, for the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma. This discovery spurs rapid advancements in chemotherapy.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Timeline: Major Milestones Against Cancer.”
  • 1958

    Combination Chemotherapy Shown to “Cure” Leukemia

    Scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) show that administering multiple drugs at the same time can cause remission in children and adults with leukemia. This finding creates the foundation for modern chemotherapy, where drugs are given in combination to achieve maximum effectiveness.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Timeline: Major Milestones Against Cancer.”
  • 1960

    Identification of the “Philadelphia Chromosome”

    Paving the way for the first-ever targeted cancer therapy (imatinib or “Gleevec”), scientists in Philadelphia identify the chromosomal abnormality linked to many forms of leukemia.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Timeline: Major Milestones Against Cancer.”
  • 1961

    Stunting the Growth of Cancer Cells

    Plant-based Vinblastine is approved by the FDA to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells in the body. This major breakthrough finding has been used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma, non-small cell lung cancer, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, and testicular cancer.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
    Stunting growth
  • 1964

    The First Reported Cure of Hodgkin Lymphoma

    The linear accelerator, a radiation machine used to treat cancer, is introduced in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma at Stanford University, resulting in cures of early-stage lymphoma. Meanwhile, a team at the NCI safely combines four chemotherapy drugs, (mustard, vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisone) known as the “MOPP” regimen, and reports the first cures of Hodgkin lymphoma.

    Horning, Sandra J., MD. “The Cure of Hodgkin Lymphoma.” 50 Years in Hematology: Research that Revolutionized Patient Care. Stanford Cancer Center, Stanford, CA.
    Hodgkin Lymphoma
  • 1965 - 1978

    Innovation Cure Rate at 90%

    In 1965 Dr. Barnett Rosenberg, Ph.D. and his colleagues experiment with cell division, eventually leading to the discovery of cisplatin. In 1978, the FDA approves cisplatin for use in combination with other drugs in the treatment of metastatic testicular cancer and metastatic ovarian cancer. Cisplatin is the first platinum-containing drug to be approved for cancer treatment and, when used in combination with other chemotherapy drugs, its cure rate is more than 90%.

    National Cancer Institute. “The ‘Accidental’ Cure — Platinum-based Treatment for Cancer: the Discovery of Cisplatin.”
    Cure rate
  • 1975 - 1976

    First Adjuvant Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

    Drs. Bernard Fisher and Gianni Bonadonna demonstrate that chemotherapy after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy) prolongs the lives of women with early-stage breast cancer. This finding sets the stage for adjuvant chemotherapy to become a major component in the treatment of breast cancer and more recently, other common cancers, including colon and lung cancer.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    Chemotherapy breast cancer
  • 1985 - 1991

    Adjuvant Chemotherapy for Colorectal Cancer

    Clinical trials demonstrate that treating patients with adjuvant chemotherapy reduces recurrence rates in patients with stage III colorectal cancer by approximately 40%. This leads to advances that result in a significant reduction in deaths from colon cancer.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 1986

    New Treatment Reduces the Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence

    After studies show that the use of hormonal therapy post surgery reduces the risk of cancer recurrence, tamoxifen is approved as an adjuvant therapy for postmenopausal women following breast cancer surgery.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    Breast cancer recurrence
  • 1989

    New Treatments Allow More Cancer Patients to Stay on Their Chemotherapy Regimens

    In June, the FDA approves the medication epoetin alfa injection to treat anemia (one of the most common and debilitating side effects of chemotherapy), leading to the development of a series of new drugs to boost the red and white blood cells in cancer patients. By stimulating cells in the bone marrow to multiply and grow new red and white blood cells, these therapies reduce the risk of infections and anemia, allowing patients to complete their chemotherapy regimens.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 1991

    Improving Quality of Life

    The FDA approves a medicine for the prevention of nausea and vomiting in association with cancer chemotherapy and surgery. Other highly effective antiemetic drugs are soon approved, offering a higher quality of care for cancer patients.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
  • 1992 - 1994

    Taxanes Found to Extend Lives

    After studies show that a group of drugs called taxanes have a unique way of preventing the growth of certain cancer cells, the FDA approves the first taxane paclitaxel in December 1992. This is based on data demonstrating that the drug shrank ovarian cancer tumors by more than half in many women who were resistant to other therapies. This leads to the development of docetaxel, a compound similar to paclitaxel, and additional research on new and better ways to use taxanes to treat many different cancers and extend survival.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    Taxanes extend lives
  • 1997

    Biotech Holds Promise

    Rituximab, the first biologic product to treat patients with cancer, is approved by the FDA for use in patients with treatment-resistant, low-grade or follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The FDA later approves it for another type called diffuse large B-cell NHL, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This biotechnology discovery continues to be tested in other disease areas in the hopes of continued opportunity for saving and improving the lives of patients.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
  • 1998

    New Advances in Treating Breast Cancer

    The FDA approves trastuzumab, the first therapeutic antibody targeted to a specific cancer-related molecular market, for use in women with metastatic breast cancer who have tumors that overexpress the protein, HER2. This development follows the results of studies showing that adding this monoclonal antibody to chemotherapy significantly improves survival in these women. Later, the FDA approves trastuzumab to treat patients with stomach cancers that have a similar overproduction of the HER2 protein.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    Advances breast cancer
  • 2001

    A Major Breakthrough!

    A major breakthrough in cancer discovery occurs when the first anti-cancer drug developed specifically to target the molecular defect that causes a particular type of cancer, imatinib mesylate, proves to be effective against chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This breakthrough discovery allows patients to take a daily pill and live a healthy life. Weeks later, imatinib proves to be effective against GIST, a rare gastrointestinal stromal tumor.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
    major breakthrough
  • 2003

    First Targeted Therapies for Lung Cancer

    The FDA approves gefitinib and erlotinib, two anti-cancer therapies directed against a protein on cell surfaces called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that when overexpressed causes lung cancer growth and spread. The FDA’s approval is based on studies showing these targeted therapies extend survival in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    Targeted lung cancer
  • 2004

    Angiogenesis Inhibitors Introduced

    The FDA approves the first angiogenesis inhibitor, bevacizumab, to treat colorectal cancer. Because this new generation of targeted therapies block the formation of blood vessels that tumors need to grow, angiogenesis inhibitors now treat a number of cancers. They are “smart” drugs that don’t kill healthy cells, have fewer side effects, and decrease the chance of drug resistance in patients.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 2004 - 2008

    Targeted Therapies for Colon Cancer

    The identification of EGFR as an oncogene leads to the development of two therapies for metastatic colon cancer, cetuximab and panitumumab. Later, studies show these therapies are effective only in patients with the normal form of a gene called KRAS, making it possible for physicians to target the use of these drugs specifically to patients who will benefit from treatment.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 2005

    Changing the Standard of Care in Lung Cancer

    After clinical trials show that giving chemotherapy after surgery significantly improves survival for patients with early stage non-small cell lung cancer, adjuvant therapy becomes the new standard of care in lung cancer, similar to the treatment of breast and colon cancers.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 2006

    Immunomodulatory Drugs Introduced for Multiple Myeloma

    In May, the FDA grants accelerated approval for thalidomide for the treatment of newly diagnosed multiple myeloma. This ushers in a new class of biological therapies called immunomodulatory drugs (IMiDs) that carry increased anti-cancer and immunological therapies. Following thalidomide’s approval, two newer IMiDs, lenalidomide and pomalidomide, are developed and approved with enhanced immunomodulating properties but with less toxicity and are now used to treat multiple myeloma and certain lymphomas.

    National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "Milestones in Cancer Research and Discovery." January 21, 2015.
    Multiple myeloma
  • 2006

    Vaccine Approved to Prevent Cervical Cancer

    The FDA approves Gardasil, the first anti-HPV vaccine, which prevents against infection with the two types of HPV that are known to cause about 70 percent of all worldwide cases of cervical cancer. After a clinical trial shows that the vaccine is safe and is 100 percent effective against these types of HPV for at least four and a half years after vaccination, it is approved for girls and young women aged 9 to 26. Gardasil is later approved to prevent additional HPV-related diseases.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 2010

    Treatment Advance in Melanoma

    Based on studies showing that the targeted drug ipilimumab improves survival and delays disease progression in patients with advanced melanoma, the FDA approves the new therapy.

    American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • 2012

    Breakthrough Therapy Signed to Law

    July 9, 2012: The Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (FDASIA) is signed. FDASIA promotes innovation via its “breakthrough therapy” designation, which allows for expedited development and review of new drugs with supporting evidence that a drug offers life-saving opportunities for patients.

    U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Fact Sheet: Breakthrough Therapies." December 10, 2014.
    Therapy law
  • 2013 - 2014

    Targeted Metastatic Melanoma Treatments

    After clinical trial success, the FDA approves trametinib and dabrafenib for use in combination to treat patients with inoperable or metastatic melanoma. This targeted therapy reduces the risk of melanoma worsening and the risk of death from the diseases.

    “FDA Approval for Dabrafenib.” 16 Jan, 2014.
  • 2013 - 2014

    New Therapies for Late Stage Lung Cancer Patients

    After scientists identify a defect in a gene called ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) as the cause of a form of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), drug innovators use this greater understanding of the underlying molecular pathways of NSCLC to develop specific targeted therapies for patients who are ALK-positive. As a result, FDA approves crizotinib (Xalkori®) in November 2013 and ceritinib (Zykadia®) in April 2014 as new treatment options for NSCLC patients who are ALK-positive and have late-stage metastatic disease. Although 85 percent of lung cancers are NSCLC, it is estimated that 2-7 percent of patients with NSCLC are ALK-positive.

    FDA. “Hematology/Oncology (Cancer) Approvals & Safety Notifications.”
    Late stage lung cancer

From the discovery of radium and its effect on carcinoma patients to a new law aligning the pace of discovery with the pace of drug development, medical innovation continues to evolve. Researchers, scientists, funders, and patients continue to push for more targeted therapies and new medicines for better treatment.

Scientific discoveries have netted new and better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat the more than 200 types of cancer. As a result, death rates are decreasing and the population of cancer survivors is steadily increasing.

History has proven that cancer cures are born of medical innovation.

Join the Movement

Sign up to receive emails from Project Innovation and become a part of the movement to accelerate cancer breakthroughs.

We will not share your contact information with third parties.

Share Your Story

Have a cancer story? Help us illustrate the impact of medical innovation by sharing your story here.