Reliable progress toward better cancer treatment requires a steady stream of new biological research discoveries. There’s still much to learn about the functions of healthy and diseased cells and tissues. Basic science research is one of the richest sources of new knowledge that leads to whole new avenues for treatment and improved patient survival – paths never imagined before such basic discoveries made them possible.

UCSF is an international leader in fundamental biological research in many fields, including stem cell science, genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and immunology. Over several years, groundbreaking basic research discoveries in these fields have shed light on biological events leading to cancer, and more recently have led to new strategies for fighting cancer – in ways that were never anticipated.

Margaret Tempero, MD

Margaret Tempero, MD

In addition to exploring the realm of fundamental biology, UCSF laboratory researchers conduct preclinical research to answer important questions about differences among various cancers and healthy tissues. These researchers chemically target different types of tumor cells to gain insight into potential treatment strategies.

Cancer center lab researchers collaborate with clinical researchers, who investigate new treatments for patients and conduct clinical trials. Lab discoveries are mined for potential clinical applications that might one day save lives.

“All of our cancer center programs forge tight interactions between research and patient care,” says Margaret Tempero, MD, director of research programs at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Laboratory studies that focus on new targets for prevention or treatment, or on biomarkers for early detection, can be applied quickly because research and clinical care are tightly integrated.

“This is the best and most efficient way to improve care and reduce deaths from cancer. We strive not only to prevent disease, but also to find better treatments to help people feel better and live longer.”

Cancer center scientists also identify, implement and evaluate strategies and programs to promote healthy behaviors that reduce the risk of cancer. These scientists investigate causes and remedies when certain populations are found to bear a disproportionate burden of cancer. Researchers search for cancer risks related to nutrition, physical activity, infectious diseases, lifestyle and environment. Cancer center scientists also are leaders in molecular epidemiology, expanding knowledge of how inherited genes affect cancer.

Community advocates are key partners in major cancer center research programs, including population studies that explore cancer risks.

UCSF Cancer Research Milestones

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD

The following is a sampling of some of the advances made by UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers that are translating into better outcomes for cancer patients.

UCSF cancer center researchers have:

  • Discovered the existence of cancer-causing oncogenes, which led in 1989 to a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for J. Michael Bishop, MD, and Harold Varmus, MD. The discovery opened new doors for exploring genetic mistakes that cause cancer. The landmark work formed the basis for some of the most important cancer research happening 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 a key role in cell aging and in cancer, and telomerase is now a therapeutic target for cancer and other diseases. Groundbreaking work on telomeres and telomerase led to a 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for UCSF scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD.
  • Pioneered an adaptive clinical trial design to accelerate the translation of research into breast cancer care. The new type of study, which involves repeated magnetic resonance imaging and tissue analyses to direct changes throughout the course of the trial, aims to quickly gauge the effectiveness for each individual patient of experimental therapies as additions to standard chemotherapy.
  • Pioneered and proved the effectiveness of a mapping technique that allows for the safe removal of tumors near language pathways in the brain. The technique minimizes brain exposure and reduces the amount of time a patient must be awake during surgery.
  • Spearheaded the development of immunotherapy for prostate cancer, which uses a patient's own immune cells to help fight the disease. UCSF led the clinical testing of a vaccine that improves survival and that was the first immunotherapy to gain Food and Drug Administration approval.
  • Pioneered the use of novel radiotherapy techniques such as intraoperative radiation and a drug called 131I-MIBG. The drug both targets cancer cells and aids in visualizing tumor tissue during imaging exams, and thereby helps boost survival in children with neuroblastoma, a leading childhood cancer.
  • Developed a new diagnostic test using genetic markers that can help distinguish benign moles from malignant melanoma. The test is the first to demonstrate both the diagnostic accuracy and the practicality of a multi-biomarker approach to diagnosing melanoma.
  • Contributed to the discovery that initial treatment success, achieved through use of a new generation of drugs – angiogenesis inhibitors – designed to starve tumors of their blood supply, is followed by a resurgence of invasive cancer growth, an adaptive response by the tumor. The discovery sheds new light on why such drugs may fail to increase survival for many patients.
  • Developed genetically engineered mouse models of cancer that mimic human cancers, and also established models to set up a preclinical testing program for new drugs. These include models established directly from individual tumors from patients. The models allow UCSF investigators to explore new therapies.
  • Built an advanced imaging laboratory that is home to a 7-tesla superconducting magnet – among the most powerful ever built. Used for magnetic resonance imaging, the instrument can evaluate tiny blood vessels 100-200 microns in diameter, detect new evidence of cancer invasion in tissue, and analyze chemical signals associated with tumor types and structures. Patients with tumors that are more diverse are more likely to progress to cancer.

For more UCSF cancer milestones, click here.