Joining Forces to Eradicate Inherited Cancers

Could there be a better team to stop BRCA-related cancers than these two luminaries in the field of breast cancer research? 

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, and Pamela Munster, MD, have an audacious goal – ending BRCA-related cancers in our children’s lifetimes. 

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes significantly elevate a person’s chances for multiple cancers – including breast, ovarian, skin (melanoma), and prostate cancer. Ashworth, president of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and senior vice president of cancer services for UCSF Health, was part of the team that identified the BRCA2 gene. Ten years later, he discovered a revolutionary way to kill off BRCA cancers by developing a drug that exploits a flaw in cells with the mutation. After being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, it became the standard treatment for BRCA1- and BRCA2-linked ovarian cancer and is likely to become the go-to treatment for other cancer types. Ashworth is hard at work trying to hone and expand the efficacy of these drugs, known as PARP inhibitors, while searching for still other innovative ways to stop inherited cancers. 

Munster, a professor in the Division of Hematology and Oncology and co-leader of the cancer center’s Molecular Oncology Program, works at the intersection of research and care, rapidly translating laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients in the most advanced stages of disease. Munster also focuses on avoiding or minimizing treatment side effects and surgeries. She is currently developing an implantable device that releases a breast cancer drug directly at the site of the cancer. A carrier of the BRCA2 mutation herself, Munster has experienced firsthand the challenges of simultaneously navigating the risks for the multiple cancers posed by BRCA mutations. Together Munster and Ashworth founded the UCSF Center for BRCA Research, the culmination of both of their lives’ work. 

Alan Ashworth is the E. Dixon Heise Distinguished Professor in Oncology.

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