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UCLA professor receives award for developing drug used in breast cancer treatment

Dennis Slamon, a UCLA physician-resident, was awarded the 2019 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his work on a groundbreaking breast cancer treatment.(Courtesy of Milo Mitchell/UCLA)

By Sameera Pant

Sept. 15, 2019 11:21 p.m.

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.

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Sameera Pant
Pant is the assistant News editor for Science and Health. She was previously a News contributor. Pant is a second-year economics student who enjoys writing about sustainability and public health.
Pant is the assistant News editor for Science and Health. She was previously a News contributor. Pant is a second-year economics student who enjoys writing about sustainability and public health.
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