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History of Cancer Detection 1851-1995

The following is a timeline of some of the major events in the development of cancer detection techniques.

1851 The first description of malignant cells in the sputum was reported by W.H. Washe. (1) Sputum tests are now performed to screen for lung cancer.


1881 The first gastroscope, an instrument inserted down the esophagus and used to view and detect cancer in the lower esophagus and stomach, was created by Jan Mikulicz-Radecki.(2)


1894 The first cystoscope, an instrument that is inserted through the urethra and used to detect cancer of the bladder, was created by Maximilian Carl Friedrich Nitze. (3)


1896 The newly discovered X-ray radiograph, or Roentgen picture (named after its discoverer, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen), was used by Franz Konig, a German surgeon to picture an amputated leg which was determined to contain a sarcoma of the tibia.(4) (5) The X-ray quickly became a tool for visualizing and diagnosing tumors inside the body. In 1901, Röntgen won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on X-rays.


1897 Bronchoscopy was introduced by Gustav Killian when he removed a piece of pork bone from the bronchus of a farmer. Inspired by his report, Chevalier Jackson constructed the first bronchoscope soon after. (6)(7)


1902 The first electrocardiogram (ECG) reading was taken by Willem Einthoven using a string galvanometer that he designed himself.(8)ECGs can be used to diagnose renal cancer.


1905 A primitive form of intravenous/excretory urography, a procedure used to visualize the upper urinary tract (by injection of contrast material) and diagnose cancer of the bladder, was developed by Fritz Voelcker and Alexander von Lichtenberg.(9)


1924 The first colposcope, and instrument that is inserted into the vagina and used to view and detect cancer of the vagina and cervix, was created by Hans Peter Hinselmann.(10)


1927 The first human arteriogram was performed by Egaz Moniz, who developed arteriography, in part, to localize cerebral tumors.(11)


1930 The use of x-rays for diagnostic examination of the breast was introduced in by Stafford Warren. His technique involved the patient lying on her side with her arm raised and having the picture taken from the side.(12)


1941 The Pap smear was introduced as a method of diagnosing carcinomas in the female genital tract by George Papanicolaou.(13)


1942 Ultrasound imaging was used for the first time for medical diagnostics, specifically the identification of intracranial tumors, by Karl and Friederich Dussik. (14)


1945 Urinary cytology, the examination of cells and other materials in urine, was used by George N. Papinicolaou and Victor F. Marshall to diagnose cancer of the bladder. (15)


1951 An early version of the mammogram, comprised of a cone and compression pad apparatus was created by Raul Leborgne to X-ray the breasts. In the paper reporting the device and its use on several patients, he recommends that "roentgen study should now be included in the diagnosis of mammary pathology." (16)


1960 Bone scintigraphy, or photoscanning of the bone with a radioactive isotope, using 85Sr was performed as a diagnostic test for spinal metastases by Gynning et al. (17)


1967 The Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), which is used to screen for colorectal cancers, was developed by Dr. David Greegor.(18)


1968 The first endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP), an endoscopic procedure used to diagnose cancer in the bile ducts and pancreas, was performed by Dr. William McCune. (19)


1969 Retrograde colonoscopy of the entire colon was successfully administered by Dr. William Wolff and his associates.(20)


1971 A radioimmunoassay made to detect alpha-fetoprotein, a tumor marker often found in higher concentrations in those with liver and testicular cancer, was created for screening purposes by Ruoslahti and Seppala.(21)


1972 The computerized tomography (CT) scan was created by Godfrey Hounsfield. CT utilizes X-rays and computer assisted analysis to generate images that represent 'slices' or cross-sections through the target organ(s). CT scans are used to diagnose several different cancers. (22)(23)


1973 Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which produces computerized images of the body that are used to diagnose several different cancers, was developed by Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield. The imaging is based on the different signals obtained from different tissue types that are subjected to a high magnetic field. (23)(24) In 2003 the developers won the Nobel prize in medicine for their work.(25)


1974 The first human positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, an instrument which creates high resolution computerized image which may be used to diagnose cancer, was built by Michael Phelps and Ed Hoffman. PET imaging is based on the detection of radiation that is released from chemicals introduced into the body. While CT and MRI give good images of anatomical structures they do not tell anything about the biological activity (i.e. cell growth) in the area. PET is able to give information about the biochemical activity of the observed structures. This allows for the discrimination between objects that are non-living such as a scar from a growing group of cells such as those in a tumor.(26)


1980 A sensitive enzyme immunoassay made to detect Prostate-specific  Antigen (PSA), a tumor marker that may be found in higher concentrations in the blood of those with prostate cancer, was created as a possible diagnostic method for prostate cancer by Kuriyama et al.(27)


1983 An immunoassay to detect CA-125, an glycoprotein marker that may be detected in human blood serum was developed by Robert Bast and his laboratory.(28) The test now used to help diagnose and track some forms of ovarian cancer.


1988 Detection of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) DNA in cervical cells as a screening tool for cervical cancer was introduced by Ritter et al.(29)


1993 Sonohysterography, a radioimaging method that is used in diagnosis of cancer of the endometrium and uterus, was developed by Drs. Parsons and Lense. In this technique, fluid is used to expand the uterus and an ultrasound probe is inserted into the vagina(30)


1995 The first DNA microarray chip was constructed and used to measure gene expression levels in plants. (31) This technology has been advanced and is now being investigated for its ability to to detect cancer in humans and to help guide treatment design for individual patients.(32)

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