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Scientific discoveries

We have an outstanding record of scientific achievement dating back more than 100 years. Here are some of our most influential discoveries, all of which have played an important role in shaping our modern understanding of cancer and how it can be treated.

Our greatest discoveries

Our achievements, listed below, have contributed significantly to the world's understanding of cancer biology and treatment.

Carcinogens in cigarette smoke

We identified many of the cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke and coal tar – including the first pure carcinogen ever to be isolated.

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Discovering early chemotherapy drugs

We were the first in Europe to develop chemotherapeutic agents. We discovered, and with The Royal Marsden developed, the chemotherapy drugs busulfan, chlorambucil, melphalan and carboplatin, which are still in use worldwide more than 50 years later.

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DNA damage and cancer

We provided the first conclusive evidence that the basic cause of cancer is damage to DNA. The discovery changed scientific opinion dramatically and marked a turning point for cancer research. Until that point, scientists had assumed carcinogens caused cancer by acting on proteins, rather than genes.

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The function of the thymus

We discovered the function of the thymus and made key findings on the function of the two main subsets of lymphocytes, T cells and B cells. This was the fundamental basis for modern immunology and cancer immunotherapy.

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How cells become cancerous

We played a major role in revealing the biochemical steps of the RAS-RAF-MAP kinase pathway. We identified one of the major mechanisms by which RAS oncogenes cause normal cells to become cancerous and provided new targets for cancer therapeutics.

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Identifying a breast cancer gene

We identified the breast cancer gene BRCA2, which enabled families with a history of breast cancer to be assessed for future risk, and laid the groundwork for developing novel forms of therapy for BRCA-associated cancers.

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Advanced radiotherapy techniques

We have made a number of major contributions to modern high-precision radiotherapy techniques, such as IMRT and IGRT. These target radiation doses precisely to the shape of tumours, increasing the effectiveness of treatment and reducing toxicity and side-effects.

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Transforming prostate cancer treatment

We transformed care for advanced prostate cancer, by validating inhibitors of androgen production as an effective cancer treatment, and discovering and developing abiraterone, a life-extending prostate cancer drug.

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Our recent discoveries

A selection of our more recent achievements that are making a big contribution to cancer research and treatment.

Characterising the BRAF gene

We played a major role in characterising the BRAF gene and its role in cancer, increasing our understanding of malignant melanoma.

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Targeting Hsp90

We determined the structure and function of Heat Shock Protein 90 (Hsp90), a molecular chaperone which is critical for the growth and survival of cancer cells.

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Practice-changing clinical trials in radiotherapy and imaging

We led major clinical trials in radiotherapy and imaging which have changed standard clinical practice for cancer treatment.

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Identifying cancer predisposition genes

We have led the world in identifying cancer predisposition genes and establishing their clinical impacts.

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Applying evolutionary biology to cancer

We pioneered the application of evolutionary biology to cancer and established cancer stem cells as the units of natural selection.

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Applying genetic principles to treat BRCA-mutant cancers

We applied the principle of synthetic lethality to discover a novel strategy for cancer treatment for patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.

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Discovering and developing a leading PI3K inhibitor

We discovered and helped develop one of the very first in a new class of PI3 kinase inhibitors.

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Transforming treatment for the most common type of breast cancer

We played a leading role in clinical trials that demonstrated the effectiveness of aromatase inhibitors in breast cancer, and in identifying and validating biomarkers to determine who could benefit from these drugs.

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Developing the Pharmacological Audit Trail

We developed the Pharmacological Audit Trail, a gold-standard system for evidence-based decision making during drug discovery and development, which uses biomarkers to track the effectiveness of cancer drugs and demonstrate that they are hitting their target.

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Working to defeat cancer

The ICR has eight research divisions and more than 15 collaborative centres all working towards one goal – to defeat cancer.

Download the research strategy

Click below to download a copy of Making the discoveries: our strategy to defeat cancer