In the late 1950s, pharmaceutical companies were actively researching a newly discovered class of anti-estrogen compounds in the hope of developing a morning-after contraceptive pill.
Arthur L Walpole was a reproductive endocrinologist who led such a team at the Alderley Park research laboratories of ICI Pharmaceuticals. It was there in 1962 that Dora Richardson first synthesised tamoxifen, known then as ICI-46,474.
Walpole and his colleagues filed a UK patent covering this compound in 1962, but patent protection on this compound was repeatedly denied in the US until the 1980s. Tamoxifen did eventually receive marketing approval as a fertility treatment, but the class of compounds never proved useful in human contraception. A link between estrogen and breast cancer had been known for many years, but cancer treatments were not a corporate priority at the time, and Walpole's personal interests were important in keeping support for the compound alive in the face of this and the lack of patent protection. but nevertheless ICI's development programme came close to termination when it was reviewed in 1972. It appears to have been Walpole again who convinced the company to market tamoxifen for late stage breast cancer in 1973. In advanced disease, tamoxifen is now only recognised as effective in estrogen receptor positive (ER+) patients, but the early trials did not select ER+ patients, and by the mid 1980s the clinical trial picture was not showing a major advantage for tamoxifen. Nevertheless, tamoxifen had a relatively mild side-effect profile, and a number of large trials continued.
It was not until 1998 that the meta-analysis of the Oxford based Early Breast Cancer Trialists' Collaborative Group showed definitively that tamoxifen saved lives in early breast cancer.
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