Content - History of SAKK

History of the Swiss Group for Clinical Cancer Research (SAKK)

The pioneering early years

Founders of the Swiss Chemotherapy Group

In 1965 the Central Office for Clinical Tumour Research was opened in a new building of the Tiefenau Hospital in Bern. “The individual is powerless – more is achieved in a team” – it was under this guiding principle that the Central Office was presented to the public. But the unit was already struggling with financial and organizational problems from the outset. As a result, a group of young oncologists left to found the Swiss Chemotherapy Group, the forerunner of today’s SAKK, under the leadership of Kurt W. Brunner.

Kurt W. Brunner: “But collaboration requires a restriction of individual decision-making freedom in favour of the shared objective and in the interest of the evaluability of a study. This requirement often conflicts with our highly individual approach to medicine, which can only be overcome by the firm determination to chart new paths together.

In parallel with the work of the chemotherapy group, which was still very small, oncology centres sprang up in Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and later Bern, Zurich, St. Gallen and Ticino.

Political advances to promote clinical research

In 1969 the Schaller motion was tabled. This motion was based on a memorandum by Brunner, Martz, Maurice and Senn – the founders of the SAKK. Since only one-third of all cancers could be effectively treated with radiotherapy or surgery, the proponents of the motion demanded that new chemotherapeutic methods from the USA be promoted.

The name SAKK emerges

1st SAKK Logo

In 1971 the Chemotherapy Group becomes the Swiss Group for Clinical Cancer Research (SAKK) – with the change of name comes the integration of multidisciplinarity (surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy).

First official support by the federal authorities

Prof. Pierre Alberto

After various further political statements, things take shape in 1972/73 with a final debate on the Schaller motion. A national centre is drawn up, which founders on the federalist structures and the high costs, which frightened people off in the wake of the economic crisis. The Federal Council’s message of 11 March 1974, however, emphasizes the need for supporting the SAKK. In the federal decision it is decreed that the SAKK be supported with 6.25 million francs from 1975 to 1979. The Office for Science and Research is commissioned with the administration of this framework credit.

In 1975 Prof. Pierre Alberto takes over as president of the group. As he himself says: “I had no choice”. Under his leadership, the first permanent home of the SAKK is found on the Rue Carouge in Geneva. Medical statistics at that time was still in its infancy and so Pierre Alberto hired an emeritus professor in applied statistics, Prof. Arthur Linder, who advised the group on statistical issues. As Pierre Alberto put it, “We had no idea about medical statistics at that time!

In 1981 Prof. Franco Cavalli becomes President of the SAKK. The name SAKK enjoys great prominence, and the publication of crucial studies in the fields of leukemia, colon cancer and breast cancer carry the name SAKK out into the world. Oncology is still a young discipline and is shaped at the time by intensive collaboration, because it was only together that the individual oncology centres could also develop further at the hospitals. Or, as Franco Cavalli said, “Everyone spoke in his or her mother tongue at that time and was nevertheless understood by everyone else”.

Growth and establishment of new structures

Prof. Hans-Jörg Senn

Prof. Hans-Jörg Senn becomes President of the SAKK in 1988. Hans-Jörg Senn shapes international collaboration with the IBCSG like no other and is regarded as the pioneer of Swiss breast cancer research.

At the same time as Prof. Urs Metzger takes over as president in 1991 the Swiss Institute of applied cancer research SIAK is founded. The idea is that SAKK, SPOG (paediatric oncology) and VSKR (Association of Swiss Cancer Registers) should be combined and become the sole contact partner of the federal authorities for patient-oriented cancer research.

In 1994 Prof. Aron Goldhirsch becomes president of SAKK. He sets consistent scientific standards of clinical research and the transfer of results to the clinical situation “by applying rigorous methodology to interpret the results of well-designed and accurately reported studies”. His credo “one for all and all for one” is legendary. Prof. Goldhirsch remains in office for 10 years.

What next for SAKK?

Prof. Richard Herrmann

The introduction of the Therapeutic Products Act in 2002 puts a number of obstacles in the way of SAKK. Prof. Goldhirsch resigns from office – the organization faces a turning point. At a meeting of the centre directors in Zurich in 2004 the future is discussed. Prof. Richard Herrmann agrees to take over the vacant presidency. But he makes this conditional upon the complicated structure, with the SIAK as umbrella organization, being simplified.

40 years of SAKK – back in its old form

SAKK becomes independent again: at the meeting in autumn 2007 the delegates agree to a merger of SIAK with SAKK. This led, after 16 years, to the integration of the existing SIAK organization into the merger partnership, which is continued under the name of SAKK.

In 2009 the coordinating centre of SAKK in Bern has grown in recent years to become a center of excellence for the national and international organization of clinical trials.

In 2010 Prof. Beat Thürlimann took over as President from Richard Herrmann and was followed by Prof. Roger von Moos in 2016. Today, SAKK employs 70 people. It enrols around 1000 patients in trials every year and has a budget of 13 million francs. In this 50 years since it was founded, 25,000 patients have been treated in SAKK trials – but the goal has remained the same:
we want the best possible cancer treatment for patients.