50 years of researching cancer

07 June 2016 | Cancer research

Christopher Wild is Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an autonomous research agency, within the framework of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Fifty years is a long time in cancer research. When IARC began its work in 1965 our knowledge of what can cause cancer was in a very different place.

50 years ago no-one knew which genes were the targets of critical alterations by environmental risk factors. Today molecular cancer pathways are well defined and the ability to sequence the whole genome is beginning not only to lead to targeted therapies, but is even revealing clues about the causes of the disease.

50 years of collaboration

The original vision was for IARC “to promote international collaboration in cancer research”. Over the last fifty years, through the outstanding cooperation of thousands of cancer researchers worldwide, this vision has become a practical reality.

The unique position of the Agency, as a research organisation within the United Nations family, provides a number of advantages. These include opportunities to translate research findings into recommendations and policy and a vital degree of independence and freedom from vested interests, facilitating both the coordination of multinational research projects and evaluation of the scientific evidence-base for cancer prevention.

From the beginning, IARC scientists sought to understand the causes of cancer through the study of international variations in cancer incidence. This initiated a long-standing commitment to work alongside colleagues in cancer registries, (where data on cancer cases is systematically collected) to improve the quality and coverage of registry data. The Global Initiative for Cancer Registry Development is a fresh strategy, making significant progress in this area.

50 years of achievements

Geographic variations in cancer incidence implicitly pointed to opportunities to research how cancer could be prevented, by avoiding or reducing exposure to identified risk factors present in different locations. These opportunities have been tackled with a multi-pronged approach, bringing together laboratory, epidemiology and biostatistics to help answer the questions being addressed.

An outstanding example of work looking into causes of cancer comes from the demonstration of the link between human papillomaviruses (HPV) and cervical cancer. We also set up one of the world’s largest cohort studies - the European Prospective Investigation of Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) - which was ground-breaking in both scale and scope, with over half a million participants across Europe providing data on cancer and lifestyle risk for over 15 years. Furthermore, our evaluations of carcinogenic risks through the IARC Monographs programme, are the world’s definitive reference for the categorisation of cancer causing agents.

What do the next 50 years of cancer research look like?

Sadly, while the level of comprehension of molecular cancer biology is unrecognisable compared to fifty years ago, many of the global disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes evident to IARC scientists in the mid-1960s are still all too easily recognisable today.

As the number of cancer patients and the costs of care spiral as never before with the burden falling particularly on low- and middle-income countries, cancer prevention must be prioritised. International studies are increasingly needed to answer national questions. Therefore IARC finds its work ever more relevant and its collaborative approach ever more in demand.

Consequently, the Agency enters its second fifty years conscious not only of its opportunities but also of its responsibilities: much has been done, much remains to be done.


The Agency recently established a new five-year research strategy with a focus on “cancer research for cancer prevention” encompassing three broad areas: describing the global occurrence of cancer, identifying the causes and evaluating prevention and implementation measures.

IARC is holding a conference on 7-10 June where fifty emerging cancer leaders from low- or middle-income countries, one for each year of IARC’s history, will participate in the conference and leadership training events.

The activities of the first 50 years of IARC are summarised in this book.

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Christopher Wild | 07 June 2016