This month in pharma: September 1901, the birth of the man who linked hormones with cancer
Cancer has long been one of the greatest battles in healthcare, with research into its many various types and the many various ways to try and treat such a pervasive condition an ongoing and enormous challenge.
Real breakthroughs have come throughout the past century, however, from the discovery of nitrogen mustard as the first modern chemotherapy in the 1940s, to the arrival of the world's first cancer 'vaccine' in the form of Merck & Co's Gardasil, for cervical cancer in 2006.
Joining such moments in cancer innovation must be the discovery of the relationship between hormones and certain types of cancer, which would lead to greater understanding of the way cancers function and allow a new method of treatment.
It was a finding made by Canadian scientist Charles Brenton Huggins, and was one made at a time when the expectations for people diagnosed with prostatic cancers were grim.
Born in Novia Scotia on September 22, 1901, Huggins was educated at the region's Acadia University, before spending time at Harvard Medical School and then the University of Michigan where he trained in surgery.
He began specialising in urology in 1927 at the University of Chicago, where he was a member of the School of Medicine.
Despite working as a practicing physician at the university, he began his urological research when he was sent to Europe by his chief of surgery, Dr Dallas Phemister. Once there he found himself at Sir Robert Robinson's laboratory in London.
This period gave him the groundwork to further his urological research back in Chicago, studying the physiology and biochemistry of the male reproductive tract and breast cancers, before making his breakthrough in 1941.
Following on from the work of Alexander and Ethel Gutman, who demonstrated that prostate cancer secreted greater than normal levels of the enzyme acid phosphatase, Huggins proved a definite relationship between hormones and cancer of the prostate through both castration and the administration of female sex hormone oestrogen.
Both these methods reduced the levels of acid phosphatase, signalling a regression in the cancer.
Papers were soon published by Huggins and his students Clarence Hodges and William Scott documenting what was the first discovery that cancer could be controlled by chemicals, causing a stir in the oncology world and giving a glimmer of hope to people with prostate cancer.
Huggins followed up this work in 1951, demonstrating that breast cancers were also dependent on oestrogen by removing a patient's ovaries and adrenal glands, both of which are sources of the hormone.
Again, this achieved tumour regression in some patients, and work began on cancer drugs that blocked the body's production of oestrogen.
These drugs now include aromatase inhibitors, such as Pfizer's Aromasin (exemestane), AstraZeneca's Arimidex (anastrozole) and Novartis' Femara (letrozole).
Aromatase inhibitors work by blocking the aromatase enzyme, which syntehsises oestrogen, achieving a reduction in levels of the hormone, and therefore a regression in the tumour, without the removal of ovaries or glands.
Tamoxifen is another hormone-based treatment option that was orginially discovered by Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca). It stops oestrogen telling breast cancer cells to grow, lowering the risk of breast cancer recurring after treatment.
There have also been numerous hormone therapies for men with prostate cancer developed since Huggins' discovery, which aim to lower levels of testosterone – a hormone on which prostate cancer is dependent for growth.
Such drugs include Merck & Co's Drogenil (flutamide), Takeda's Prostap (leuprorelin) and Casodex (bicalutamide) and Zoladex (goserelin), both of which are made by AstraZeneca.
Huggins' discovery was one of the first major steps forward in treating cancer, and his legacy is one that has had a real impact for patients around the world.
His research was justly recognised by the Nobel committee in 1966 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1966 alongside Peyton Rous for his discovery of viruses that can induce tumours.
And, though modest in his Nobel banquet speech, he hinted at the future achievements his work would allow.
The agony of cancer was expressed by Sir Thomas Browne: “The long habit of living makes mere men the more hardly to part with life and all to be nothing but what is to come,” he said.
“A cancer worker utters the mariner's prayer: 'Oh, Lord, Thy sea is so vast and my bark is so small.'
“Yet, a start has been made. Something emerges which has content and meaning for the people.”
Compiled by Tom Meek,
web editor at PMLiVE