Dr Ian Hardcastle, Northern Institute for Cancer Research, Newcastle University
Although often thought of as a relatively recent disease, cancer can be traced back to very early life on earth, with evidence of the disease being found in fossils of dinosaurs and Egyptian mummies. Not surprisingly, treatments for cancer in humans also date to antiquity, and include arsenic and the plant extract podophyllotoxin. Interestingly, derivatives of both of these folklore remedies are still in clinical use. The discovery of the anticancer activity of nitrogen mustard, developed as a chemical warfare agent during World War II, heralded the birth of modern cancer chemotherapy, and cytotoxic drugs have been the mainstay of treatment for over sixty years.
Remarkable recent developments in the areas of chemistry and biology, not least the determination of the human genome, have brought about a revolution in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The development of ‘personalised medicines’ tailored to the requirements of an individual patient has become a reality, and offers the opportunity to design new drugs that are truly selective for cancer. In my lecture, I will highlight the major milestones in the evolution of cancer chemotherapy, and explain how drug hunters are using modern technology to identify exciting new medicines for the treatment of this disease.