A UCLA physician-scientist received an award for his work on a groundbreaking breast cancer drug.
Dennis Slamon, who is a professor and chief of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was awarded the 2019 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, according to a Sept. 9 university press release. Slamon received the award for the development of Herceptin, a drug employed in treatment for women with HER2-positive or HER2+ breast cancer.
Slamon will share the $250,000 award with cancer researchers H. Michael Shepard and Axel Ullrich. Both Shepard and Ullrich worked with Genentech, a biotechnology company involved in the development of Herceptin.
HER2-positive breast cancer is one that tests positive for a protein that catalyzes the growth of cancer cells. This protein is known as human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 or HER2.
Slamon and his co-researchers postulated that if they could identify what was broken in a cancer cell by comparing it to a normal cell, they could target the defect in a manner which wouldn’t harm healthy tissue, a theory that spurred the development of Herceptin.
The work of the awardees, which began in the 1980s, identified the HER2 protein as a driver and proved a link between the HER2+ gene mutation and aggressive types of breast cancer.
In the early 1990s, women with HER2+ cancer had a postdiagnosis life expectancy of three to five years. Nowadays, depending on stage when cancer is diagnosed, women with HER2+ breast cancer have a postdiagnosis life expectancy of seven to 10 years. Globally, an estimated 2.7 to 3 million women have been treated with Herceptin.
Slamon’s accomplishment marks the second consecutive year a UCLA scientist won the Lasker Award. Michael Grunstein, a biological chemistry professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine, won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2018 for his work on gene expression.