The History of Cancer

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The twenty-first century

The growth in our knowledge of cancer biology has led to remarkable progress in cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment. Scientists have learned more about cancer in the last 2 decades than had been learned in all the centuries preceding. This does not change the fact, however, that all scientific knowledge is based on the knowledge already acquired by the hard work and discovery of our predecessors – and we know that there is still a lot more to learn.

Cancer research is advancing on so many fronts that it’s hard to choose the ones to highlight here.

More targeted therapies: As more is learned about the molecular biology of cancer, researchers will have more targets for their new drugs. Along with more monoclonal antibodies and small signaling pathway inhibitors, researchers are developing new classes of molecules such as antisense oligodeoxynucleotides and small interfering RNA (siRNA).

An example of this is a new class of targeted therapies called PARP inhibitors. (PARP is short for poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase enzymes.) Cancer cells use PARP to repair DNA damage, including the damage caused by cancer treatment. Recent studies in breast cancer have shown that blocking PARP can make cancer cells more sensitive to treatment and promote cell death.

BRAF is another gene that can produce a mutant cancer protein seen in about half of all melanomas. The drug vemurafenib (Zelboraf) targets this mutation. This drug prolonged overall survival in patients with inoperable melanoma compared to the standard drug dacarbazine. Vemurafenib was FDA approved in August 2011 for patients who have melanoma with this gene mutation.

Nanotechnology: New technology for producing materials that form extremely tiny particles is leading to very promising imaging tests that can more accurately show the location of tumors. It also is aiding the development of new ways to deliver drugs more specifically and effectively to cancer cells.

Robotic surgery: This term refers to manipulation of surgical instruments remotely by robot arms and other devices controlled by a surgeon. Robotic systems have been used for several types of cancer surgery; radical prostatectomy is among the most common uses in surgical oncology. As mechanical and computer technology improve, some researchers expect future systems will be able to remove tumors more completely and with less surgical trauma.

Expression profiling and proteomics: Expression profiling lets scientists determine relative output of hundreds or even thousands of molecules (including the proteins made by RNA, DNA, or even a cell or tissue) at one time. Knowing what proteins are present in cells can tell scientists a lot about how the cell is behaving. In cancer, it can help distinguish more aggressive cancers from less aggressive ones, and can often help predict which drugs the tumor is likely to respond to.

Proteomic methods are also being tested for cancer screening. For most types of cancer, measuring the amount of one protein in the blood is not very good at finding early cancers. But researchers are hopeful that comparing the relative amounts of many proteins may be more useful, and that finding large amounts of certain proteins and less of others can provide accurate, useful information about cancer treatment and its outcomes. Proteins (and other types of molecules) are even found in exhaled breath, which is now being tested to find out if it can show early signs of lung cancer. This is an exciting area of research and early results in lung and colorectal cancer studies have been promising.

The American Cancer Society can help you learn more about cancer. Contact us anytime, day or night, for cancer-related information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit us online at

To learn more

Encyclopedia Britannica. See entries on Medicine, History of Cancer.

Lyons AS, Petrucelli RJ. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers; 1978.

Shimkin MB. Contrary to Nature: Cancer. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Printing Office, Washington D.C. 20401. DHEW Publication No (NIH) 76-720; 1976.

Mukherjee, S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner; 2010.

Last Medical Review: 06/08/2012
Last Revised: 06/08/2012