Acclaimed British Scientist Is Named Director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

March 17, 2014
News Office: Elizabeth Fernandez (415) 502-6397

Alan Ashworth

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS

One of the world's preeminent cancer scientists, Alan Ashworth, has been appointed the new director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Ashworth is chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, one of the world's most influential cancer research organizations. Together with its partner hospital, The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, the ICR is rated in the top four cancer centers globally.

He will formally assume the position in January 2015.

Ashworth, whose major contribution to cancer research has been his work on genes involved in cancer risk, was a central part of the team that in 1995 discovered the gene BRCA2, which is linked to a heightened risk of some types of cancer. A decade later, Ashworth identified a way to exploit genetic weaknesses in cancer cells, including mutated BRCA2, leading to a new approach to cancer therapy. In 2008, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).

As the new director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Ashworth will lead a premier program that combines basic research, clinical research, epidemiology/cancer control and patient care, with a strong emphasis on translational science that moves discoveries toward new therapies.

"Alan Ashworth is the ideal leader to carry forward UCSF's cancer enterprise in this era of genomic and precision medicine," said Dr. Sam Hawgood, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine and incoming interim chancellor for UC San Francisco overall. "Alan was at the forefront of the world's understanding of the genetic principles behind cancer biology and using that information to change the way patients are treated. He is renowned for both his research into the genetics of breast cancer and cancer susceptibility, and for his leadership at The Institute of Cancer Research. He will be a phenomenal addition to the UCSF community."

UCSF's Accomplishments in Cancer

Here are a few of the accomplishments of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center:

  • Discovered the existence of proto-oncogenes, normal genes that have the potential to become cancerous, which led to a 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for Dr. J. Michael Bishop and Dr. Harold Varmus and opened new doors for exploring genetic mistakes that cause cancer. The landmark work formed the basis for some of the most important cancer research today.
  • Discovered the molecular nature of telomeres — parts of chromosomes that critically affect the life span of cells — and the enzyme telomerase that regulates them. Telomeres and telomerase play key roles in cell aging and cancer. Telomerase is now a therapeutic target for cancer and other diseases. Groundbreaking work on telomeres and telomerase; that led to a 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for UCSF investigator Elizabeth Blackburn.
  • Selected to lead a multi-center Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) Prostate Cancer Dream Team to identify causes of therapeutic resistance and deliver personalized treatment for patients with advanced prostate cancer.
  • Pioneered an adaptive clinical trial design to accelerate the translation of research into breast cancer care which involves repeated MR imaging and tissue analyses to direct changes during the course of the trial and aims to quickly gauge the effectiveness for each patient of experimental therapies as additions to standard chemotherapy.
  • Discovered that certain chromosome translocations that cause childhood leukemias can be detected prenatally, a dramatic result that might offer the possibility of early detection and screening.
  • Pioneered and proved the effectiveness of a mapping technique that allows for the safe removal of tumors near language pathways in the brain.
  • Played a leadership role in developing better treatment guidelines for early-stage prostate cancer, which will help reduce inappropriate treatment for men whose cancers may never progress. Developed CAPRA score to predict prostate cancer recurrence based on pretreatment clinical data.

Ashworth succeeds cancer research pioneer Frank McCormick, an internationally renowned molecular biologist who helped pave the way toward the development of targeted cancer therapies.

McCormick launched the cancer center in 1997, building an internationally elite team of researchers and clinicians focused on translational research, and led the center to receive the highly competitive designation as the first National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive cancer center in Northern California. Today, it is one of the foremost cancer centers in the nation.

"Frank has led the cancer center through tremendous advances in the field, as well as challenging times in funding those advances," said Hawgood. "Under his leadership, UCSF has gained world renown in both fundamental cancer research and clinical care, while charting a sustainable course in scientific support."

For his part, McCormick has taken on a new national leadership role as director of the RAS Project, a new laboratory of the NCI that will focus on the mutated protein RAS, which plays a key role in a third of all cancers. McCormick is internationally regarded for his work on the RAS signaling pathway and was invited by NCI Director Harold Varmus to lead the new federal initiative. He will also remain as a faculty member in the UCSF cancer center.

"I'm very proud of what we've done building the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center into one of the top-rated cancer centers in the country," McCormick said. "For me, it has been a wonderful experience, and I look forward to working with Alan in a different capacity in the future."

McCormick said he was delighted that Ashworth had accepted the position.

"He has the vision and expertise and leadership to take the cancer center to the next level of excellence," McCormick said. "He is a brilliant scientist who has had a tremendous impact on cancer research and cancer care in the United Kingdom. It is wonderful that he will bring his expertise and experience to San Francisco."

Under Ashworth's leadership, the ICR has continued to be a world leader in isolating cancer-related genes and discovering new targeted drugs for personalized cancer treatment. The top academic center at discovering new cancer drugs, since 2005, the ICR has discovered 17 drug candidates and has taken seven drugs into clinical trials.

"Thanks to the work of brilliant scientists like Alan, cancer patients across the world have benefited from more precise diagnoses and better treatments," said Mark Laret, chief executive officer of UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. "Alan's expertise, combined with the preeminent clinicians and researchers here at UCSF, further enhances UCSF's role as a destination for advanced cancer care, and I am thrilled that he is joining the UCSF community."

Ashworth, who has been with the ICR for 28 years, is a professor of molecular biology and leader of the gene function team in The Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre at the ICR. He is an elected member of the Academy of Medical Sciences and has received many scientific prizes and awards, including the European Society of Medical Oncology Lifetime Achievement Award.

His current research reflects his passion for the development of personalized cancer medicine, translating laboratory studies into improvements in patient care.

"It is a huge honor to take the leadership of cancer at UCSF, a world-renowned institution," Ashworth said. "Frank McCormick did a tremendous job in establishing the now internationally recognized UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. I look forward to working with my new colleagues in transferring our knowledge of cancer into significant benefits for cancer patients and the public, both in San Francisco and worldwide."

To help transition to Ashworth's leadership, Dr. Peter R. Carroll will serve as interim director effective April 1. He is associate dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, chair of the UCSF Department of Urology, and leader of the prostate cancer program at the UCSF cancer center.

Over the past decade, the UCSF cancer center's research funding has grown from $204.8 million to $249.5 million, which includes a Cancer Center Support Grant from the NCI. Overall, research funding includes support from the National Institutes of Health, patient advocacy foundations and industry.

The cancer center integrates the work of more than 380 researchers and clinicians who are dedicated to four fundamental pursuits: state-of-the-art patient care; laboratory research into the causes and events of cancer's progression; clinical research to translate new knowledge into viable treatments; and population research that can lead to prevention, early detection and quality of life improvement for those living with cancer.

In 2015, the 70-bed UCSF Bakar Cancer Hospital will open at the UCSF Mission Bay campus as part of the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, which will include the UCSF Betty Irene Moore Women's Hospital and the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

More information about the cancer center's accomplishments can be found here.

About UCSF Medical Center
UCSF Medical Center consistently ranks as one of the top 10 hospitals in the United States. Recognized for innovative treatments, advanced technology, collaboration among health care professionals and scientists, and a highly compassionate patient care team, UCSF Medical Center serves as the academic medical center of the University of California, San Francisco. The medical center's nationally preeminent programs include children's health, the brain and nervous system, organ transplantation, women's health and cancer. It operates as a self-supporting enterprise within UCSF and generates its own revenues to cover the operating costs of providing patient care.

Follow UCSF Medical Center on or on Twitter @UCSFHospitals.

About UCSF
UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

Follow UCSF on Twitter @ucsf/@ucsfscience