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Advances in Patient Care and Research at Dana-Farber

  • 1940s and 1950s

    In 1947, Sidney Farber, MD, establishes the Children's Cancer Research Foundation, now Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, introducing the first research program in chemotherapy for children with cancer.

    Dr. Farber and his team of clinicians and laboratory scientists are the first to use chemotherapy to attain temporary remissions of acute lymphocytic leukemia in children. Research that transfers new scientific knowledge "from the lab bench to the patient bedside" forms the foundation for future progress against cancer at the Institute.

    Dr. Farber and colleagues achieve the first remissions in Wilms' tumor of the kidney, a common form of childhood cancer. By employing the antibiotic actinomycin D in addition to surgery and radiation therapy, they boost cure rates from 40 to 85 percent.

    1960s

    Researchers develop means to collect, preserve and transfuse blood-clotting factors called platelets to control bleeding, a critical step to combating this common side effect of cancer chemotherapy.

    1970s

    Studies involving pediatric and adult patients continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of using multiple drugs to cure many forms of cancer. Foundation leaders help to pioneer this strategy, known as combination chemotherapy.

    Through more effective chemotherapy, researchers raise cure rates for some forms of adult non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to 60 percent.

    Researchers increase the cure rate for a bone cancer known as osteogenic sarcoma from less than 15 percent to more than 60 percent. Use of chemotherapy in addition to surgery and/or radiation therapy reduces many tumors to operable size and may even render surgery unnecessary.

    Researchers develop a combination therapy program for soft-tissue sarcomas, resulting in a 50 percent response rate.

    By employing drugs in novel combinations, investigators improve survival for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, breast cancer and advanced testicular cancer. They also report the first cures for acute myelogenous leukemia and large cell lymphoma.

    Researchers clone the gene RAS and demonstrate that, when mutated, this gene – the first known human oncogene – helps spur development of many common human tumors.

    1980s

    Having developed monoclonal antibodies to purge cancer cells from bone marrow, physician-researchers pioneer autologous ("self") bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for childhood leukemia. This procedure enables patients to tolerate extremely high doses of chemotherapy and radiation formulated to eradicate their disease.

    Institute researchers employ autologous bone marrow transplantation to treat other cancers of the blood and immune system, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

    Researchers help identify the gene RB-1, essential for preventing retinoblastoma, a rare inheritable cancer of the eye, and shed light on how it works. The growth-controlling role of RB-1 and other "tumor-suppressor" genes in more common forms of cancer becomes the focus of scrutiny worldwide.

    Researchers discover the first evidence that growth-related signaling pathways are composed of multiple oncogene products.

    Dana-Farber's Breast Evaluation Center is established. Through this innovative clinic – a model for breast centers nationwide – oncologists, radiation therapists, surgeons, pathologists and other specialists work to advance breast cancer detection and treatment.

    Researchers introduce the CA-125 blood test for monitoring the progress of ovarian cancer patients undergoing treatment. Later researchers devise a similar test for breast cancer, DF-3.

    Dana-Farber immunologists identify the human T cell receptor, a complex of molecules that enable immune cells to recognize foreign invaders.

    Immunologists develop means to detect protein markers called antigens on immune cells, making it possible to identify different immune-cell cancers and devise specific treatments for them.

    Researchers show the immune system is turned "on" by helper T cells and "off" by suppressor T cells. The AIDS virus infects and destroys helper T cells, eventually rendering its host defenseless against disease.

    Dana-Farber researchers identify a growth-controlling hormone called platelet-derived growth factor, or PDGF, believed to play a role in wound healing, and they implicate PDGF in a complex cascade of genetic interactions that lead to cancer.

    Half of patients with head and neck cancers with a poor prognosis prove responsive to an aggressive program of chemotherapy, radiation and/or surgery developed by Institute researchers and their collaborators.

    As of the late 1980s, two of every three children who enter the Jimmy Fund Clinic walk out cured, and more than half of all people with cancer are cured.

    Dana-Farber researchers are among the first to suspect a relationship between the retrovirus that causes human T cell leukemia (HTLV–1) and the one that causes AIDS (HIV–1).

    The multidisciplinary Brain Tumor Clinic is established in 1989 to accelerate progress against brain cancers in children and adults.

    Researchers at Dana-Farber and their collaborators discover a cell-surface molecule that serves as the point of entry for viruses responsible for the common cold.

    Institute scientists help pioneer development of a new generation of anti-cancer drugs, called immunotoxins, which deliver a potent poison to cancer cells via monoclonal antibodies, leaving normal cells unscathed.

    Institute researchers help introduce the use of naturally occurring growth factors to spur recovery of bone marrow following high-dose chemotherapy. To make bone marrow transplantation safer and more effective, they substitute for bone marrow a potent combination of young bone marrow cells (stem cells) and growth factors that spur their maturation.

    1990s

    Pointing to a flaw in the gene p53, researchers demonstrate that a susceptibility to developing cancer can be passed from one generation to the next. The gene is discovered in families afflicted by the rare Li-Fraumeni syndrome, in which family members are at very high risk for tumors of the adrenal gland, breast, brain and soft tissues.

    Dana-Farber and Sandoz Pharmaceutical Corporation (now known as Novartis) enter into a novel long-term collaboration to develop a new generation of potent anti-tumor agents based on scientists' understanding of the molecular missteps that lead to cancer.

    The Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic is created in 1992 to advance the early detection and prevention of breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease.

    In 1993, the Women's Cancers Program is launched at Dana-Farber. This initiative aims to reduce the incidence of cancers of the breast, lung and gynecological and reproductive systems by bridging the gap between petri dish and patient.

    Dana-Farber establishes the High Risk Research Clinic, one of the nation's first genetic testing programs for members of families with an inherited susceptibility to cancer. The program aims to identify individuals at risk and provide genetic and psychological counseling.

    Scientists discover a group of genes that raise susceptibility to a common inherited form of colon cancer and several other malignancies. The finding reveals an entirely new mechanism for cancer's development. It also raises hopes for saving thousands of lives by screening individuals at high risk for the disease.

    Scientists at Dana-Farber find a relationship between a small, repeating section of DNA and the aggressiveness of prostate cancer. The finding may lead to diagnostic tests capable of determining which patients can benefit from surgery or other treatment options, and which are best served by "watchful waiting."

    Dana-Farber opens the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, making complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and meditation available to patients while conducting formal research into such therapies' effectiveness.

    Researchers at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's Hospital report that a diabetes drug can cause tumor cells in one variety of liposarcoma – a fat cell cancer – to grow more slowly. It is the first time scientists have succeeded in causing solid tumor cells to mature, or "differentiate, " to behave more like normal cells.

    Building on insights into the functioning of the human immune system, Institute researchers devise a way to neutralize immune system cells responsible for graft-versus-host-disease, a potentially dangerous side effect of organ and tissue transplants. The discovery points toward the creation of a universal donor pool for organ and tissue transplantation and may one-day free transplant recipients from the need to take powerful anti-rejection drugs.

    2000s

    Dana-Farber researchers and colleagues at affiliated hospitals announce the results of the first human study of Endostatin™ Protein, a drug that seeks to reduce tumors by cutting off their blood supply. The investigators report that the drug is safe even in high doses and that in some cases it halted the progress of advanced cancers.

    Investigators studying a rare disease called Fanconi anemia discover that genes linked to the disorder are involved in switching on BRCA1, a gene that, when defective, is the most common source of inherited breast cancer.

    Dana-Farber researchers find that Gleevec, a targeted therapy that achieved striking success against chronic myelogenous leukemia, can shrink and even eliminate tumors in some patients with a rare and otherwise incurable digestive-tract cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor.

    Scientists at Dana-Farber and the Whitehead Institute find a gene "signature" in several types of tumors that suggest they are likely to spread to other parts of the body, potentially leading to tests for determining whether tumors have the potential to metastasize.

    Dana-Farber scientists report that the drug gefitinib produces dramatic benefits in non-small cell lung cancer patients who carry an abnormal version of a key protein, a potentially life-saving discovery for tens of thousands of patients around the world every year.

    2005

    Aiming to overcome some of the longstanding barriers to the creation of new Cancer therapies, Dana-Farber opens the Center for Applied Cancer Science. By working closely with scientists in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, the center hopes to speed the process by which research advances are converted into clinic-ready treatments.

    Picking up where the map of the human genome leaves off, a group of Dana-Farber scientists opens the Center for Cancer Systems Biology, which studies how genes act together in controlling the lives of cells. By tracking such activity networks, researchers hope to understand how genes work in concert, and how they are disrupted in cancer cells.

    2006

    The Institute inaugurates the Patient Navigators program to help patients from underserved populations receive care and support at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center.

    Dana-Farber researchers identify a molecular mechanism in the liver that explains how eating foods rich in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids causes elevated blood levels of so-called "bad" cholesterol and triglicerides, increasing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The discovery may be a first step toward drugs capable of "turning down" the mechanism and lowing the chances of heart disease.

    Research in the laboratory and in animal models by investigators at Dana-Farber and Novartis Pharma AG identifies a compound that is 20 times more potent than the much-heralded drug Gleevec against chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). If effective in human patients, the compound, called AMN107, may produce longer remissions than Gleevec and be active in patients who have relapsed after taking Gleevec.

    2007

    Dana-Farber scientists discover that p53, one of the best-known tumor-suppressing proteins in human cells, also prompts skin to tan in response to exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. Because tanned skin is less susceptible to melanoma, creams or lotions that cause p53 or other proteins to initiate the tanning process might help protect at-risk people from the disease.

    An international team led by researchers at Dana-Farber and the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard produces a comprehensive map of the "molecular landscape" of lung cancer, identifying 50 sites on the chromosomes of lung cancer patients that are genetically different from those in healthy individuals. About two thirds of these sites harbor genes that hadn't previously been suspected as playing a role in the disease.

    2008

    Dana-Farber scientists achieve a medical first: using a "targeted" drug to drive a patient's metastatic melanoma into remission. When lab tests showed the patient's tumor cells harbored a certain mutated gene, doctors treated her with a drug that blocks the gene's action. The result: a dramatic reduction in tumor size and activity.

    2009

    Dana-Farber researchers engineer lab-grown mouse and human cells to produce brown fat, a natural energy-burning type of fat that counteracts obesity. Use of the technique in people could provide a new approach to treating obesity and diabetes.

    A scientific team led by Dana-Farber researchers identifies a group of normal human antibodies that neutralize the vast majority of flu viruses known to cause disease in people. Copying these natural proteins to produce vast numbers of identical, "monoclonal" antibodies could give doctors and public health officials a powerful new weapon against virus transmission and flu outbreaks.

    2010s

    2010

    Results of a Dana-Farber-led clinical trial lead to federal approval of Provenge, the first therapeutic cancer vaccine.

    By switching on a dormant enzyme in prematurely aged mice, Dana-Farber researchers restore a measure of youthfulness to the animals, enlarging the mice's brains, increasing their fertility, and reviving their lost sense of smell. The work represents the first time such aging reversal has been achieved in animals, although researchers caution it is not applicable to humans at present.

    Tweaking a single gene in sedentary mice can produce heart-strengthening effects similar to those achieved by two weeks of endurance training, Dana-Farber investigators report. The findings may point to future strategies for repairing injured hearts through muscle regeneration.

    Scientists at Dana-Farber and the Broad Institute launch Project Achilles, an effort to determine which of the many gene mutations in cancer cells actually drive the cancer process.

    2011

    In studies with mice, Dana-Farber scientists identify the root molecular cause of a variety of ills brought on by advanced age, such as waning energy, failure of the heart and other organs, and metabolic disorders like diabetes. The scientists find such age-related conditions result from malfunctioning telomeres, the end-caps of cells' chromosomes that provide protection from DNA damage.

    Research by Dana-Farber scientists provides new evidence that high-grade serous ovarian cancer — the fifth-deadliest cancer among American women — originates in the fallopian tubes rather than the ovaries. Proof that the disease indeed begins in the fallopian tubes may improve early detection and treatment strategies.

    Challenging a half-century-old theory that chemotherapy works by targeting fast-dividing cells, Dana-Farber researchers report that chemotherapy agents are most effective against tumors that are already “primed” for death. The researchers find that cancer cells on the verge of self-destructing are especially vulnerable to chemotherapy — a discovery that may make it possible to predict which cancer patients are most likely to benefit from certain chemo agents.

    Collaborating scientists at Dana-Farber and Boston Children's Hospital report that a combination of two drugs may alleviate radiation sickness in people who have been exposed to high levels of radiation, even if the therapy is given a day after exposure occurred. The finding suggests that the two-drug regimen could become a mainstay of the public health response to events such as a nuclear power plant accident or a nuclear terror attack.

    Officials launch Profile, a research program that enables all adult patients treated at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center to have their tumor tissue scanned for genetic mutations known or suspected of being linked to cancer. The results of the scans will provide data for studies that seek to improve the effectiveness, safety, and precision of future cancer treatments.

    2012

    Dana-Farber scientists discover a type of fat cell, known as "beige fat," in mice. Such cells can, under certain conditions, burn energy to make heat. Researchers suggest that further study of beige fat might lead to new treatments for obesity. Obesity is a risk factor for cancer.

    A compound developed by Dana-Farber researchers to block a cancer-causing gene shows promise in animal tests at Baylor College of Medicine as a potential male contraceptive.

    Researchers identify three subtypes of high-grade serous ovarian cancer — the most common cancer of the ovary — based on the extent of a particular kind of genetic damage with the cells. Patients with the highest degree of such damage generally have the best response to standard chemotherapy, the investigators find.

    2013

    Scientists at Dana-Farber and the Broad Institute provide the most detailed look yet at how genetic mutations within chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells (CLL) can shift over time. The changes help explain why CLL often recurs after treatment and may provide a road map to the development of better therapies for the disease.

    Using specially developed mathematical models, researchers find that many men with low-risk, localized prostate cancers can safely forego immediate treatment in favor of active surveillance or watchful waiting. This approach can spare many men unnecessary treatment and reduce health-care costs, the investigators report.

    Although women who survive childhood cancer face an increased risk of infertility, Dana-Farber researchers find that nearly two-thirds of those who tried unsuccessfully to become pregnant for at least a year eventually conceived — comparable to the rate of eventual pregnancy for all clinically infertile women.

    2014

    Dana-Farber scientists report promising findings in the search for treatments for cachexia, a fat- and muscle-wasting condition that affects about half of all cancer patients. In studies involving mice with lung tumors, the researchers find that a key antibody can alleviate or prevent symptoms of cachexia in the animals.

    Researchers at Dana-Farber and allied institutions report that the drug nivolumab, which unleashes an immune system attack on cancer, can produce lasting remissions and hold advanced melanoma in check for more than two years in many patients with the disease.

    In a phase I clinical trial led by Dana-Farber investigators, a new targeted agent shrinks tumors in about half of non-small cell lung cancer patients whose tumors no longer respond to conventional targeted drugs. The drug, which targets a mutation in the EGFR gene, produces markedly fewer side effects than other targeted therapies for this type of lung cancer.

    A team of scientists including Dana-Farber researchers identifies four subtypes of stomach cancer, each with a shared set of gene mutations or other genetic abnormalities. The findings may pave the way for clinical trials of drugs that target the newly identified subtypes.

    2015  

    Dana-Farber scientists develop a test for determining which drugs are most likely to be effective against particular tumors. The test measures how vigorously tumor cells turn on “self-destruct” signals in response to different cancer drugs. Researchers say the test could lead to more reliable and rapid tools for personalizing cancer treatment to individual patients.

    A novel blood test developed by Dana-Farber scientists can help first responders triage victims of radiation accidents by indicating which are likely to survive, which are likely to die, and which should receive immediate medical countermeasures. The test measures substances in the blood that register the effect of radiation on bone marrow and organ function.

    Heralding a new, more potent form of targeted therapy, researchers devise a technique that destroys, rather than merely disables, cancer-related proteins in tumor cells. The strategy uses tumor cells’ own protein-chopping machinery to break down and dispose of proteins that drive cancer growth. When tested in laboratory samples of leukemia cells and in animals with human-like leukemia, the approach caused cancer cells to die much more quickly than with conventional targeted therapies.

    2016

    Researchers at Dana-Farber and Boston Children’s Hospital become the first to watch a cancer spread from a single cell in a live animal, discovering a critical step in the process that turns a cancer-prone cell into a malignant one. The researchers find that cancer begins after a cancer-causing gene is activated or a cancer-suppressing gene is lost, causing a single cell to revert to the state of a stem cell, which can give rise to multiple cell types. The research, done in zebrafish, offers a new set of therapeutic targets and could help revive a half-century-old theory known as “field cancerization,” which holds that large swaths of cells in a tissue or organ are affected by cancer-causing alterations.

    Children with high-risk neuroblastoma whose treatment included two autologous stem cell transplants were more likely to be free of cancer three years later than patients who underwent a single transplant, a Phase 3 clinical trial led by Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center investigators finds. The tandem transplant technique, developed by researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s in the 1990s, produced even better results when followed by treatment with immunotherapy agents.

    In a possible breakthrough against breast cancer that has spread to the brain, Dana-Farber researchers report that a combination of targeted therapies drove HER2-positive breast cancer brain metastases into long-term remissions in mice. If successful in clinical trials involving patients with brain-metastatic breast cancer, the two-drug therapy could offer one of the first effective treatments for the condition.

    Repeated doses of an immunotherapy drug can restore complete remissions in some patients with advanced blood cancers who had relapsed after undergoing a stem cell transplant, Dana-Farber investigators report. The finding, from a clinical trial involving patients with relapsed leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma, suggests that the strategy could potentially prevent such relapses in the future.

    A personalized vaccine developed by researchers at Dana-Farber and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center produces compelling results in a clinical trial involving patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The vaccine stimulated powerful immune responses against the patients’ AML cells and protected a majority of the patients from relapsing.

    Testing blood for a key protein can help identify patients who are likely to benefit from immune checkpoint inhibitors, one of the most promising forms of cancer immunotherapy, Dana-Farber researchers report. The researchers found that blood levels of angiopoietin-2, a protein involved in blood vessel formation, were a gauge of how well patients with metastatic melanoma responded to checkpoint inhibitors. 

    One-third of patients with metastatic melanoma treated with the immunotherapy drug nivolumab in a Phase 1 clinical trial have survived for five years, according to a report from Dana-Farber researchers. This five-year survival rate is double the rate for similar patients diagnosed between 2005 and 2011, and who were not treated with immunotherapy.