UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann Receives California Distinguished Citizen Award


UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Chief of Protocol for the state of California Charlotte Shultz, and Presidio Trust chairman Nancy Hellman Bechtle, from left, gather at the 24th Annual Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner hosted by The Commonwealth Club on Wednesday night at San Francisco's Palace Hotel.
By Jennifer O'Brien on April 20, 2012

In an event that celebrated the energy, creativity and innovation of the Bay Area, UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, and three other Bay Area leaders were honored on April 18, each receiving the Commonwealth Club of California’s 2012 Distinguished Citizen Award.

The other honorees were Nancy Hellman Bechtle, chairman of the Presidio Trust, who received the William K. Bowes, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, Steven Chu, PhD, United States Secretary of Energy, distinguished scientist and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, and Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley “angel” investor who is on the Chancellor’s advisory board of UCSF and a major fundraiser for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

These “rainmakers have made a significant impact on our region by creating business and economic opportunities, or, through their philanthropy and fundraising dedication, have improved the fabric of our social and cultural organizations here in the Bay Area,” wrote the Commonwealth Club in the invitation to the event.

UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, both honorees, speak at the reception.

A clinical scientist, Desmond-Hellmann was honored for the critical role she has played in biotechnology, shepherding the first targeted cancer therapies to clinical trial as president of product development at Genentech, and for her current role as the leader of UCSF, where she is supporting the basic and clinical research community and working to create an infrastructure that drives discoveries into new therapies for patients.

She used her brief remarks at the event to extol the passion, commitment and drive of the UCSF community. Being chancellor of UCSF during a time of great financial challenge “is tough,” she volunteered, but, she continued, “All I need to do is get around our trainees… they are going to change the world …. Their core values are giving back to humanity.”

The Commonwealth Club event, which took place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, was teeming with civic participants, including Charlotte and George Shultz, who served as U.S. Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of Labor, and renowned chef Thomas Keller. The event, emceed by KGO Channel 7 news anchor Dan Ashley, is the Commonwealth Club’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

One of the World's Most Powerful Innovators

In November 2009, Forbes magazine named Desmond-Hellmann one of the world’s seven most “powerful innovators,” calling her a “hero to legions of cancer patients.” A practicing oncologist early in her career, she was listed among Fortune magazine’s “top 50 most powerful women in business” for seven years, and, in 2010, was inducted in to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and elected to the Institute of Medicine.

From left, Jaleh Daie, Roger Wyse and Chef Hubert Keller.

Commonwealth Club honoree Chef Hubert Keller, right, speaks with Jaleh Daie, left, and Roger Wyse at the reception.

Last year, Desmond-Hellmann co-chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee advocating for the creation of a “Google Maps”-like data network that could revolutionize medical research and treatment. The intent of the network would be to integrate emerging research on the molecular makeup of disease with clinical data from patients to drive the development of a more accurate classification, or taxonomy, of disease beyond classification by organs and symptoms. The goal would be to create more diagnostics and treatments tailored to the individual patient — what the committee’s report called “precision medicine,” meaning both “accurate” and “precise.”

Last week, Desmond-Hellmann advanced this effort, penning an editorial in the April 11 issue of Science Translational Medicine in which she called on patient advocates to work with policy makers in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere to develop regulations that would more efficiently link patient information between research and clinical care settings, while continuing to protect patient privacy. The information is a key component of the proposed data network and could accelerate medical advances, she and her academy co-authors say.

That mission is never out of sight for Desmond-Hellmann. As she prepared to move from the reception to the dinner, she was introduced to a man whose wife has stage-4 colon cancer and is being treated with Avastin, a drug that Desmond-Hellmann helped advance through development and the approval process at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration while at Genentech.

They proceeded to discuss his wife’s treatment in some detail, with Desmond-Hellmann explaining aspects of the way the drug works in the body.

“Speaking with you has made my night,” he said.

Photos by Cindy Chew