5 transformative medical discoveries and where they started

16th July 2021

Did you know that eight out of ten of the world's “most transformative” medicines emerged from discovery research?

Many of these lifesaving treatments exist because scientists were given the time and tools to answer new questions with no clear path to a drug. Driven by curiosity, these discoveries provided the knowledge that eventually led to these transformative medicines. As a team of Curestarters, this vision for research is something we all share.

The research we fund with your support provides the foundation for the development of new cures in the future. Read on for our top picks of transformative moments in medicine and the discoveries that led to them.

COVID-19 vaccines

You’re no doubt up to speed with the names of the various coronavirus vaccines. But did you know that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first in the world to be approved, originally started as a cancer vaccine? The brainchild of scientist couple Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, their vaccine is based on experimental mRNA technology the pair had spent their careers researching and developing for cancer treatment.

It’s thanks to decades of their research understanding the basics of cancer biology and how our immune system responds to cancer that the technology behind this coronavirus vaccine exists.

Lifesaving breast cancer drug

Tamoxifen is a drug for the most common type of breast cancer and is one of the most widely prescribed and, arguably, successful targeted cancer therapies ever developed. Tamoxifen began in a pharmaceutical chemistry lab in the 1950s where it was first created by chemist Dora Richardson during research into contraceptive pills. The chemical compound tamoxifen was designed to block the hormone oestrogen from working properly but trials as a contraceptive pill failed.

A link between oestrogen and breast cancer was known at the time but the pharmaceutical company wasn’t interested in developing cancer therapies. Thanks to pressure from lab lead Arthur Walpole, tamoxifen was eventually taken into trials for breast cancer, and the rest is history.

Preventing blood clots

Warfarin is a drug prescribed globally to millions of people to help prevent blood clots. The drug, originally marketed as a rat poison, is the product of a series of fortunate discoveries that started in 1933 with a farmer in Wisconsin who was seeking an answer to why his cows kept dying.

Thanks to years of discovery research in the lab, Karl Paul Link worked out that a chemical from sweet clover in the cow’s food was causing them to bleed to death. He discovered that this chemical was interfering with how blood clots, which ultimately led to the design and development of the drug warfarin.

Seeing and studying bacteria

Many diseases and illnesses that would kill millions of people a year are virtually non-existent because of the knowledge we have about bacteria and how they cause infections. This advancement in human health originates from two unusual stories.

The first came in 1676 when Antony van Leeuwnhoek first saw bacteria under a homemade microscope he originally designed to examine the quality of cloth. The second came 200 years later when Robert Koch created a whole new way of growing bacteria in petri dishes after he discovered weird bacterial growth growing on a slice of potato left out in the lab.

Drugs that stop tumour growth

Anti-angiogenics are drugs that block the development of new blood vessels. A number of these drugs have been approved for cancer treatment to stop tumour hijacking the blood vessels they need to grow and spread. Their development emerged out of an unrelated discovery by Judah Folkman who in the 1960s was drafted by the US Navy to research the development of artificial blood. During his research he noticed that tumours in animals were not able to grow without a blood supply, sparking his curiosity to study angiogenesis – the growth of new blood vessels.

Folkman’s work led to the identification of many of the basic biological mechanisms controlling angiogenesis in cancer and started the development of many of the drugs available today.

Incredible discoveries like these would never have happened without research – and research cannot happen without the support of people like you. If you’re feeling inspired by these amazing breakthroughs, why not help us make the breakthroughs of the future by donating and starting new cancer cures today?


Further reading

Cancer explained Three illustrated lightbulbs on a yellow background

7 incredible medical breakthroughs that changed the world

Take a look at some of the greatest medical discoveries in history and how they still benefit us today.

29 April 2021


7 inspirational scientists you’ve probably never heard of

We’re all about celebrating scientists who make amazing discoveries but who might not make front-page news, so here are some of our favourites from history.

15 April 2021

A young scientist wearing a headscarf and safety goggles working in a lab

Twelve cancer research breakthroughs we made last year

We highlight some of the biggest discoveries made by our scientists in 2020.

26 February 2021