A history of global cancer breakthroughs

Major developments in cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment have occurred for almost 150 years. See some of the major global milestones responsible for improving cancer outcomes.

What will be next? 


Free bowel cancer screening Australia-wide

Free bowel cancer screening available to everyone aged 50–74.


Link between bowel cancer and processed meat


Australian first: NSW solarium ban

Commercial solariums banned due to evidence they cause skin cancers and targeted combination drug therapy halts disease and extends life in advanced melanoma patients.

A Sunvision Elite tanning bed switched off. Tristanb at the English language Wikipedia. CC.



Ground-breaking NSW sun safety campaign

Cancer Institute NSW launches the Pretty Shady sun safety campaign.


Australian plain packaging introduced

In a world-first, Australia introduces cigarette plain-packaging legislation. The Cancer Institute NSW is instrumental in the implementation. Cigarette sales are the lowest on record.


Gamma knife treatment

Australia's first Gamma knife patient treated in NSW.

NRC Graphic of the Leksell Gamma Knife. Source: NRC



Australian HPV Vaccination Program commences

Australia introduced school-based National HPV Vaccination Program to drastically reduce cervical cancer cases.


NSW's first skin cancer prevention campaign

Bondi lifesavers feature in the first state-based skin cancer prevention campaign, 'What are your chances'.


Human genome mapped

Scientists announce they have mapped the human genome (DNA) which allows researchers to identify the genetic defects that power cancer.

In the same year, Australia's first state-wide cancer control agency, the Cancer Institute NSW is established to lessen the impact of cancer in NSW.


Tomotherapy trialled

First patients treated with Tomotherapy treatment in USA.




New therapy for CML

New targeted therapy transforms treatment for chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML).

A small, hypolobated megakaryocyte (center of field) in a bone marrow aspirate, typically of chronic myelogenous leukemia.



First ever targeted cancer drug

Rituximab is developed, the first ever targeted cancer drug.

Fab domain of rituximab with a peptide epitope.



Discovery of tumour suppressor genes

The tumour suppressor gene BRCA1 is cloned. Specific inherited mutations in this gene greatly increase the risks of breast and ovarian cancer in women and the risks of several other cancers in both men and women.

The following year, the similar BRCA2 gene is also cloned.


Development in anti-nausea drugs

Anti-nausea drugs alleviate major side effects of cancer treatment (Ondansetron).

A vial of Zofran 4 mg containing ondansetron for intravenous injection.


BreastScreen Australia first provides free population breast cancer screening.

The National Cervical Screening Program is also introduced, halving cases and deaths from cervical cancer.

BreastScreen NSW screening van



3D conformal radiation therapy

3D conformal radiation therapy allows doctors to shape the dose to the target tumours from multiple angles.


Second-hand smoke declared carcinogenic

Second-hand smoke is officially declared a carcinogen by the US Surgeon General.


Tamoxifen stops breast cancer recurrence

A large study, led by Cancer Research UK scientists, shows that tamoxifen prevents breast cancer from coming back after surgery. This work led to a major breakthrough in the way that early cancer is treated, saving thousands of lives.

Nolvadex (tamoxifen) 20 mg tablets.



Iconic sun protection ad airs in Australia

The 'Slip, Slop, Slap' skin cancer prevention campaign airs for the first time.


First radiotherapy masks invented

Radiation mask


Tobacco advertising banned in Australia

Tobacco advertising on television and radio began being phased out in 1973. A total ban on tobacco and cigarette advertising commenced in 1976.


Advancements in tumour imagin

PET, MRI and CT are developed - CT scanning enables doctors to assess tumours in more detail and target them through radiation or surgery without harming patients' healthy tissue.




Radiation beam shaping

Radiation beam shaping using a multileaf collimators described by Takahashi, Japan.


Radiation beam shaping

Radiation beam shaping using a multileaf collimators described by Takahashi, Japan.


Development in combination chemotherapy

Chemotherapy found to cure Hodgkin Lymphoma regimen called MOPP.


First human cancer virus discovered

Cancer Research UK-funded scientists discover the first human cancer virus - today around one in five cancers worldwide is linked to viruses or bacteria

Two Epstein Barr Virus virions (viral particles) shows round capsids—protein-encased genetic material—loosely surrounded by the membrane envelope



Combination chemotherapy for leukaemia



First human tumour cured

Roy Hertz and Min Chiu Li achieve the first complete cure of a human solid tumor by chemotherapy when they use the drug methotrexate to treat a patient with choriocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the reproductive tissue that mainly affects women.

Hertz, Roy and Li, Min Chiu.



Linac based RT

First patient to be treated with cobalt 60 radiation, Canada.

Linac based radiotherapy for cancer began in 1953 in London Hammersmith hospital


Cobalt 60 radiation

First patient to be treated with cobalt 60 radiation, Canada.

Cobalt 60 Cancer therapy



Game changing tobacco studies

Landmark studies in the UK and US conclude that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer (75% of Australian men were smokers at this time).


First chemotherapy drug approved for cancer

Methotrexate packaging.


First successful chemotherapy treatment

Nitrogen Mustard is used to treat Hodgkin Lymphoma. The treatment was discovered from an agent found in deadly mustard gas used during WWI.

Chemotherapy research.



First ever remission of paediatric leukaemia

Sidney Farber.


Bone marrow transplants

Dr Jacobson performs the first experimental bone marrow transplants in animals, laying the groundwork for bone marrow transplantation in humans.


First commercial sunscreens sold

Founder of L'Oreal cosmetics, Eugene Schueller, markets one of the first sunscreen products.


The Pap Test is developed

Pap test, Papanicolau stain, 400x


Radiation therapy

Marie and Pierre Curie discover radium and in the following decades radiation therapy becomes widely used to treat many different cancers.

Pierre and Marie Curie




The first mastectomy for breast cancer is conducted by William Stewart Halstead.