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Q&A with cancer researcher José Baselga


Date: October 18, 2017
L to R: Prof. Daniel Zajfman, Dr. Daniela di Segni of the Lombroso Foundation, and Dr. Baselga

L to R: Prof. Daniel Zajfman, Dr. Daniela di Segni of the Lombroso Foundation, and Dr. Baselga

The Sergio Lombroso Prize, given to scientists at the Weizmann Institute and worldwide since 1998, was awarded this year to Prof. José Baselga, MD PhD, Physician-in-Chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, for his work developing anti-cancer treatments and designing more effective clinical trials. He is a board-certified medical oncologist and researcher, with a special focus on breast cancer. Last year’s winner, Prof. Eytan Domany of the Department of Physics of Complex Systems, who studies cancer, was also bestowed with the honor this year. The ceremony took place in combination with a symposium on cancer research co-sponsored by the Moross Integrated Cancer Center at the David Lopatie Conference Centre on May 14.

The Lombroso Award is funded by the Sergio Lombroso Foundation in Italy, which to date has also funded 40 young scholars from Italy—visiting students, scientists, PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows—performing research at the Weizmann Institute. The program is run by Dr. Daniela Di Segni, the niece of Sergio Lombroso who founded the program.

Q: What has been your relationship with Weizmann scientists over time?

A: Weizmann is clearly one of the premier research institutions in the world. It’s almost impossible not to collaborate with Weizmann at some point if you want to advance your research. There’s no escaping Weizmann!

The first time I came across Weizmann investigators was in the late 1980s when I read every single one of Prof. Michael Sela’s papers. At that time I was developing trastuzumab (Herceptin) for HER2-positive breast cancer, and his work was absolutely an illumination—a guide—on what needed to be done. The experiment that I designed was based on a 1988 figure of Michael Sela’s about treatment with an EGFR inhibitor in combination with chemotherapy. When I saw that figure, I said, ‘That’s the way to do it.’ We now have a number of therapies based on the concept that you combine targeted therapies with conventional therapies—which was Michael’s ingenuity.

I became aware early on about the work of Prof. Yossi Yarden, a phenomenal scientist in the area of HER2, and he has been a reference for the world in this area. As a scientific community, we have saved the lives and changed the lives of many patients with HER2-positive breast cancer. Fifteen years ago, a diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer was almost a death sentence. Today, these are the patients whom we cure the most. Today, many women with breast cancer are disappointed when they receive a diagnosis that’s not HER2-postiive.

And then there is the computational power of the Weizmann Institute. In fact, there is an army of Israeli computational scientists around the world who are spread across the best institutions. They have transformed the field—and this is the area that the cancer field needs the most.

I am working with Yardena [Prof. Yardena Samuels], and Moshe [Prof. Moshe Oren], and others—the talent is unbelievable. I don’t know how Weizmann does it. Its fighting power is well beyond its size, with only 250 PIs. How is it possible that so few people are so influential?

Q: What is the value of collaboration with Weizmann scientists?

A: One couldn’t put a price on it; it’s highly valuable. We have donor-funded, structured collaborations between MSKCC and Weizmann, like the one funded by the Thompson Family Foundation [with Prof. Avigdor Scherz and the late Prof. Yoram Salomon to test TOOKAD® Soluble for prostate, bladder, gastroesophageal, and breast cancer]. There are many other collaborations between individual scientists; I collaborate with Weizmann scientists all the time, as do many of my colleagues.

Pairing Weizmann’s basic research with our research and clinical trials is a match made in heaven. MSKCC is a powerhouse when it comes to clinical trials—we have over 800 of them and enroll 5,000 patients every year, on dozens of types of cancer. When I started in my position, I said that I would like to see the number of clinical trials grow by 10% a year, and it is happening.

We benefit from Weizmann’s basic research insights, and Weizmann scientists benefit from knowing about the questions we are facing in the clinic. We ought to continue to work at creating a true sense of community. If we succeed, we will accelerate the scientific discovery process and save lives.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in managing so many clinical trials?

A: The number of clinical trials has skyrocketed because we know so much more about cancer than we ever did, and we continue to identify more genetic mutations that various drugs can target. Medicine is becoming increasingly personalized. But physicians are focused on the patient and whether the therapy is working, and can’t possibly keep track of all the trials available and what would be best for a particular patient.

We implemented a clinical trial enrollment system and database at MSKCC. We hired a large team of trial specialists who manage the patient consent process and match patients to trials based on their specific genetic mutations in combination with real-time assessment through imaging or other methods. This informs us when it is time to switch therapies. It also reduces the burden for physicians and ensures patients are enrolled in the trials that are most likely to help them, and gets them treated faster.

Q: What does the future hold for cancer diagnosis and treatment?

A: The dream is to screen better and diagnose cancers earlier; better identify patients at risk for developing cancer; improve prevention initiatives; provide better immune therapies and combinations of therapies; have a better selection process of candidates for immune therapies such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cells and T-cell receptor (TCR) cells. We need to shorten the time between scans and decisions about changing treatment and assigning patients to new trials, and better monitor a patient’s response to therapy by looking not just at imaging but at the presence of clones, which determine resistance.

I believe that Weizmann scientists will play a role in this coming era and I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges from here. My message to the Weizmann scientists and all scientists doing basic research would be: hurry up, we need your insights! We are holding the fort with patients but we cannot apply anything in the clinic that is not coming from basic science.

Q: How many times have you been to Israel?

A: This is my third time. It’s an amazing place—paradise.