A long and rich history of saving lives
Since 1925, Yorkshire Cancer Research has been working with researchers, cancer experts, volunteers and supporters to save lives. We are the largest independent regional cancer charity in England. The research funded by the charity's supporters is helping more people survive cancer - in Yorkshire, across the UK and around the world.
A timeline of the charity's history
A small group of politicians and leading clinicians gathered in the House of Commons to discuss how to ‘rid mankind of the scourge and fear of cancer’. In the hope of bringing a co- ordinated approach to the effort to cure the disease they created a new organisation - ‘The British Empire Cancer Campaign’. However, the first appeal for funds met with an underwhelming response from the British public and it was decided that setting up a network of regional councils across the country might generate more support.
As a result, in May 1925, some of Yorkshire’s most notable luminaries - aristocrats, medics and businessmen - gathered for a luncheon meeting in the old Queens Hotel in Leeds. Together they founded ‘The Yorkshire Council of the British Empire Cancer Campaign’ which was to become Yorkshire Cancer Research. It was to prove to be a very expensive lunch for all present as Lord Harewood would not let anyone leave until £50,000 had been pledged to establish this new Yorkshire Council, the equivalent of around £3 million today.
Two adjoining shops were bought on Great George Street, close to Leeds Town Hall, and converted into a ‘modest’ research laboratory. It opened in January 1927 under the leadership of Professor Richard Passey.
Two years later a young researcher, Dr Isaac Berenblum, was running an experiment to try to discover if cancer tumours grew more quickly in tissue which had a rich blood supply. He was using mustard gas and to his surprise his research revealed that this highly toxic gas stopped cancer tumours growing. He had discovered a ‘tumour inhibitor’ and his work was to play a part in the subsequent development of chemotherapy. There are now over a hundred types of chemotherapy drugs and they are used in the treatment of around a third of all cancer patients worldwide.
Berenblum reviewed the incidence of bladder cancer in workers in the cloth-dying industry, vital work which was to be taken forward by the ‘determined and formidable’ Dr Georgiana Bonser. Under her guidance Leeds became renowned for research into cancer-causing chemicals used in industry. The initial focus was on chemicals used in cloth-dying factories because Leeds was a major centre for garment manufacture, but as the work progressed it had ramifications for other industries as well. By the 1960s a number of chemicals had been proven to cause bladder cancer and had been completely removed from industry or were being handled with extreme care.
The charity took the decision to assist the war effort by gifting the use of its Leeds laboratory to the Blood Transfusion Service. Key cancer research staff were drafted into the Emergency Medical Service.
The charity partnered with Hull Royal Infirmary and the city’s Health Authority to create a new Radiotherapy Centre plus seven supporting radiotherapy clinics in the local catchment area.
The arrangement in Hull became a blue-print for activity in Leeds as the charity partnered with the city’s University and the Regional Health Board to build a new Radiotherapy Centre at Cookridge Hospital. A cutting-edge new cobalt radiotherapy machine was installed and used for patient treatment during the day and research during the night.
Dr Bonser and her team began investigations into the wide range of artificial food dyes which were then available, playing a vital role in advising the Government on which ones caused cancer.
A new name was ushered in for the charity. After forty-five years the imposing but increasingly out-dated and overly-long ‘Yorkshire Council for the British Empire Cancer Campaign’ was consigned to the history books and the charity became the ‘Yorkshire Cancer Research Campaign’, adopting a new logo in the process.
The breast cancer drug Tamoxifen was used for the first time. It has since been described as the most important cancer drug in history with perhaps as many as a million women still alive today because of it. Tamoxifen had humble origins though. It was invented in the 1960s as a possible ‘morning after’ contraceptive pill but failed spectacularly as it actually turned out to make women more fertile, not less. It could easily have been abandoned at that point but fortunately its potential as a possible breast cancer treatment was spotted and a young Leeds-based researcher, Dr Craig Jordan, was recruited to investigate. There were many ups and downs as the drug went through development, but it was to become the gold-standard treatment for the majority of breast cancers for the next 20 years and it is still prescribed daily all around the world. Craig Jordan is now revered as ‘The Father of Tamoxifen’ and one of our prized possessions is a copy of his book about the drug bearing the inscription ‘To all my friends at Yorkshire Cancer Research, with my gratitude and thanks for investing in a young scientist’.
Did you know?
Tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy used to treat breast cancer, was first discovered through research discovered by Yorkshire Cancer Research.
The charity began a long-term investment in the development of a new kind of cancer treatment – Photodynamic Therapy (PDT).
Over the next two decades a Leeds-based research team under the guidance of Professor Stan Brown grew to become a recognised world leader in PDT. The therapy involves patients receiving a drug which accumulates in the tumour over a period of hours or days. A laser is then applied to the tumour to activate the drug and kill cancer cells. PDT can be used forsome skin cancers, oesophageal cancers, lung cancers and pituitary brain cancers. By the early 2000s there were over 30 centres delivering PDT in the UK and many hundreds more around the world. In a very welcome spin-off, one of the PDT drugs developed in Leeds, Visudyne, proved to be an effective treatment for macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly. By 2005 over a million people worldwide had had their remaining vision preserved by the drug.
Professor Phil Quirke’s Leeds-based pathology team published a study of bowel cancer surgical technique which was to have huge impact. It led to a worldwide series of ‘master class’ programmes for surgeons which significantly increased the number of people surviving bowel cancer.
There were two notable arrivals at the charity’s newly refurbished research laboratories in York. Professor Norman Maitland and Professor Jo Milner were both to go on to establish world-leading reputations in their fields. Professor Maitland’s team showed for the first time that the genetic make-up of prostate cancer cells varied within a tumour and they also made a major breakthrough by establishing the nature of the protein which controls Human Papilloma Virus, the principle cause of cervical cancer. Professor Milner studied ‘P53’, a protein which can instigate the death of damaged cells to prevent them growing and dividing and becoming cancerous. Her team were the first to discover that P53 also plays another crucial role in quickly repairing genetic damage. They then went on to become the first in the world to successfully use a technique called ‘RNA interference’, employing it to ‘totally eliminate’ cervical cancer cells whilst leaving healthy cells undamaged.
With £7 million funding from the charity, a new Centre for Magnetic Resonance Investigations opened in Hull. It was a facility unique in Europe at the time. It housed two scanners - one for patient use and one for research. The scanners provided images which allowed for improved cancer diagnosis and more accurate assessment of the stage of a tumour. The Centre was to develop particular expertise in the scanning of breast cancers. The charity’s support saw the arrival of a Tesla whole ody scanner in 2004, the first of its type in the UK.
The charity shortened its name to ‘Yorkshire Cancer Research’ and in 2001 adopted a new logo with the white rose of Yorkshire prominent.
Sheffield-based Professor Angie Cox made a major breakthrough in breast cancer genetics. She had discovered an inheritable chromosome mutation which reduced the risk of the disease. An international consortium of laboratories then tested the result of this genetic alteration in populations around the world. The outcome was the first conclusive proof that small inherited changes in genetic structure may affect an individual’s risk of developing various types of cancer.
A world-first for the charity. Research in Sheffield, led by Professor Thomas Helleday, resulted in a new drug, Lynparza, being approved for use for women with certain types of advanced ovarian cancer. It was a type of drug known as a ‘parp inhibitor’ and was the first of its kind to be licensed for patient use. Since then, other successful parp inhibitors have come through and Lynparza itself has gone from strength to strength, being approved for use for some types of breast cancer, prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer in addition to ovarian cancer.
A revolutionary cancer drug, pioneered in Yorkshire
Lynparza – a PARP inhibitor also known as olaparib – became the first cancer drug targeting an inherited genetic fault to be made available on the NHS.
The charity’s biggest ever investment in a single research project saw a mobile lung-screening unit begin a four year tour around Leeds. Led by Professor Mat Callister, this £8million investment is saving lives by detecting lung cancers at an early stage when more treatment options are available. At the time of writing (April 2022) over 6600 people have been scanned and more than 180 lung cancers have been detected. The project has now been extended to include screening for kidney cancers and there are plans to fund further mobile screening units in other parts of Yorkshire.
The charity introduced a new brand identity and logo. The rose is now more obviously a Yorkshire rose and its petals depict people holding hands and supporting each other to emphasise the charity’s commitment to help individuals and communities across the county.
We will celebrate our 100th anniversary, an opportunity to look back over the achievements of the charity and a chance to look forward to funding even more vital research to give the people of Yorkshire more life to live.