Discover: Cancer Control Pioneers

Living History
Written on: 
Tuesday, June 12, 2012

There have been many cancer-related discoveries and advances made at the University of Toronto, both in terms of developing better treatments and in understanding the fundamental workings of cells.

The stem cell story began in 1958 with the building of the University of Toronto’s Department of Medical Biophysics, attracting hematologist Dr. Ernest A. McCulloch and biophysicist Dr. James E. Till. McCulloch and Till’s efforts focused on the biological effects of radiation on cancer cells by replacing dead bone marrow cells with healthy cells. They observed the transplanted cells developed “colony forming units” that proved to be self-renewing precursors of new blood cells, later called a “stem cell.”  This dynamic team revolutionized medical literature, uncovered new ways to treat many diseases, and laid the foundation for bone marrow transplantation.

On a larger scale, the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and breast cancer were significantly advanced in Toronto through the radiotherapeutic research and treatment methods pioneered by Dr. M. Vera Peters. By the early 1950s, Peters’ research clearly demonstrated the importance of early diagnosis and radiation treatment against Hodgkin’s disease. She was also a leading advocate of the conservative treatment of breast cancer, showing in controlled studies the clinical and personal value of balanced surgical and radiotherapeutic treatments, rather than resorting too quickly to radical mastectomies.