Slamon tabbed for nation's top biomedical research honor

New Castle native Dr. Dennis Slamon is a recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey award, which is widely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize.

A New Castle native and renowned cancer research scientist and physician, Dr. Dennis J. Slamon, will receive what is widely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize.

Slamon will receive the 2019 Lasker-DeBakey Medical Research award later this month for his work in developing a breakthrough breast cancer drug.

Slamon is a professor and chief of hematology/oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. According to the university's web site, he has been awarded the honor for his groundbreaking development of Herceptin (trastuzumab), a lifesaving therapy for women with HER2-positive breast cancer.

Slamon shares the award with H. Michael Shepard, an American cancer researcher honored for work he completed at biotechnology company Genentech; and Axel Ullrich, a German cancer researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry.

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation honored Slamon and his colleagues for demonstrating that monoclonal antibodies — proteins that bind to specific invader organisms or abnormal or cancerous cells — were a viable and effective strategy to treat solid tumors, opening a new path to develop and deploy antibodies to treat cancer, according to the web information.

“Dennis is a scientific pioneer whose research has benefited countless patients and families,” said Dr. Kelsey Martin, dean of the Geffen School of Medicine. “Everyone at UCLA is extremely proud that his accomplishments are being recognized by the Lasker committee.”

The development of Herceptin marked a new era of more effective therapies designed to fight cancer at its genetic roots. In the early 1980s, Slamon first identified a new, more aggressive subtype of breast cancer called HER2-positive, or HER2+. Several years later, he and his team discovered a link between the HER2+ gene mutation and aggressive breast cancer. He then proved the theory that if researchers could identify what was broken in a cancer cell compared to a normal cell, they could attempt to target and treat it specifically without damaging normal tissue — something many cancer researchers doubted would be effective.

“There were a lot of preconceived notions that this approach couldn’t work because prior antibody therapies in cancer had failed,” said Slamon, who is also the director of clinical and translational research at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, we had clear data to back us up and we really stuck to pursuing it. I grew up being told that I was only limited by my own ability. That always stayed with me. You have to be very careful and critical of your data, but if it looks correct, believe it and chase it despite what others may think.”

The first human clinical trial led by Slamon was performed at UCLA in 1990. Twenty women — whom he credits as being the real heroes in the Herceptin development story — participated.

“Those women who entered the phase one trials are not research subjects or patients, they’re colleagues,” Slamon said in the UCLA press release. “They’re every bit as much of the story as any of us because they participated in a trial knowing that we might be giving them something that would hurt them. And because it was a safety test, we had to start at levels that were not likely to even help them. But they all agreed and volunteered with the attitude that while it may not directly help them, it might help the next person behind them.”

In the early 1990s, women with the HER2+ subtype had an average life expectancy after diagnosis of three to five years. Today, depending on the stage of diagnosis, women with the HER2+ subtype average seven to 10 years of disease-free survival. An estimated 2.7 million to 3 million women around the world have been treated with the drug, according to the website.

A 1975 honors graduate of the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, Slamon earned his doctorate in cell biology that same year. He completed his internship and residency at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics, becoming chief resident in 1978. One year later, he became a fellow in the division of hematology/oncology at UCLA.

Slamon also serves as director of the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program and is the executive vice chair for research at the Geffen School of Medicine. He has received dozens of national and international awards, including the 2019 Sjöberg Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Sweden’s Sjöberg Foundation; the Medal of Honor for Clinical Research, the American Cancer Society’s highest honor; the Gairdner Foundation International Award; the Salk Award for Translational Research; and the National Library of Medicine Distinguished Medical Service Award.

The honor marks the second year in a row that a UCLA scientist has won the Lasker Award, one of America’s most prestigious biomedical research awards. Michael Grunstein, a distinguished professor of biological chemistry at the Geffen School of Medicine, was awarded the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for his groundbreaking research on gene expression.

The Lasker Awards, widely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize, will be presented Sept. 20 in New York by the Lasker Foundation. The honor carries a prize of $250,000, which Slamon, Shepard and Ullrich will split equally. The foundation recognizes the most important achievements in science and public service, supports and encourages the scientific leaders of tomorrow, and raises awareness of the need for research funding. 

Locally, Slamon's efforts have been supported by a fund-raising movement called Par for the Cure, initiated by the family of the late JoAnn Esposito, who lost her 14-year battle with breast cancer on April 8, 2017. The movement started with an annual benefit golf outing in Las Vegas but later led to events in New Castle, Pennsylvania, which is Slamon's home town. Altogether, Par for the Cure has raised more than $1.3 million for Slamon's cancer research at UCLA.

"Living Proof," a 2008 movie about Slamon's research and discovery of Herceptin, starred actor Harry Connick Jr. portraying Slamon.

A graduate of New Castle High School, Slamon, 71, still has family members locally. Two sisters, JoAnn Gangone, and Nora Lee Sallie both live in the New Castle area, as do many of his relatives.

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