Breast Cancer Research: Milestones

Vision and sheer determination have given us hope for breast cancer treatment and prevention.

4 min read

For every milestone in breast cancer research, there are countless men and women to thank. Through their creativity and dogged determination, women have hope in preventing, living with, even curing breast cancer.

Here are just a few of these courageous researchers, who bucked traditional thinking and showed proof of their theories:

1902 -- The radical mastectomy was first performed and was the only treatment for breast cancer for more than 80 years. It involved removing a large portion of the chest, including the entire breast, lymph nodes, and chest wall muscles.

1955 -- Charles Huggins, PhD, pioneered breast cancer research showing that sex hormones were involved. He received the Nobel Prize in 1966.

1955 -- Emil J. Freireich, MD, and colleagues designed the first scientific clinical trial for combination cancer chemotherapy.

1966 -- Elwood Jensen, MD, and Eugene Sombre, PhD, described proteins that bind to sex hormones and help carry out their function.

1966 -- Henry Lynch, MD, first identified a hereditary cancer/family syndrome.

1970s -- A handful of forward-thinking surgeons began believing that simple mastectomy -- removal of only the breast itself -- was just as effective as a radical mastectomy.

Surgeons also began studying lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy as an option to radical mastectomy.

Among those visionary breast cancer researchers: Bernard Fisher, MD, director of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, and Umberto Veronesi, MD, researcher with the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy. Both launched long-term studies of these techniques.

1970s -- Brian McMahon, MD, showed that breast cancer was related to length of a woman's lifetime exposure to reproductive hormones.

1970s -- Joseph Bertino, MD, and Robert Schimke, MD, worked out mechanisms of drug resistance.

1970s -- Peter Vogt, MD, identified the first cancer-causing gene (oncogene) in a chicken tumor virus.

1974 -- V. Craig Jordan, PhD, showed that the drug tamoxifen could prevent breast cancer in rats by binding to the estrogen receptor. Four years later, tamoxifen was approved by the FDA for treating estrogen-sensitive breast cancers.

1976 -- J. Michael Bishop, MD, and Harold Varmus, MD, discovered oncogenes in normal DNA, suggesting that a normal gene already present in the cell has the potential of becoming an oncogene. They were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1989.

1980 -- E. Donnall Thomas, MD, pioneered the technique of bone marrow transplantation to treat cancer. He received the Nobel Prize in 1990.

1988 -- Dennis Salmon, MD, discovered that too much of the cancer gene that produces the her-2/neu receptor is a feature of some 30% of the most aggressive breast cancers.

1990 -- Mary-Claire King, MD, localized the BRCA1 gene for inherited susceptibility to breast cancer to a specific site on chromosome 17.

1994 -- Brian Henderson, MD, showed that exercise can reduce risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.

1994 -- David G.I. Kingston, PhD, reported results of the drug Taxol as an effective second-line therapy for advanced breast cancer. He also reported success with the drug Taxotere in treating breast cancer.

1998 -- Bernard Fisher, MD, reported that tamoxifen reduces the incidence of breast cancer by 45% in high-risk women; this is the first successful chemoprevention of breast cancer.

1998 -- Dennis Salmon, MD, showed that the drug Herceptin-r improves survival of women with advanced breast cancer.

1999 -- V. Craig Jordan, PhD, reported that raloxifene reduces the risk of breast cancer by 76% in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.

2002 -- Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, developed DNA technology to predict which breast cancer patients will develop metastasis, thus making aggressive chemotherapy a preventive measure.

2002 -- Bernard Fisher, MD, published results of his 20-year study of 1,800 women: Total mastectomy offers no advantage over either lumpectomy or lumpectomy plus radiation therapy.

Umberto Veronesi, MD, researcher with the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy, published the 20-year follow-up results of his study of 701 women who had either lumpectomy plus radiation therapy or radical mastectomy. The overall survival rate in the two groups was virtually identical.

The saga of breast cancer research, of course, has not ended. Many more names will be added to this list as dedicated people struggle to find answers to the complex disease called breast cancer.