Q&A with the New Director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS Photo by Steve Babuljak

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, is one of the world’s preeminent cancer scientists. This January he assumed the role of the new director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Ashworth studies genes involved in cancer risk, and was a key player on the team discovered the gene BRCA2, which is linked to a heightened risk of breast, ovarian and other cancers.

He went on to develop a treatment for BRCA1- and BRCA2–related cancers that was recently approved by the FDA. Before coming to UCSF this January, Ashworth was chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London. He answered a few questions about his new position.

What brought you to UCSF?

I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to make a difference. UCSF has always been a place I’ve enjoyed visiting. I like the scale and breadth of it, the excellence, the feeling of entrepreneurship.  The new hospital at Mission Bay was also one of the major drivers in my coming here – it will allow a totally seamless integration between clinical programs and research in a stunning new facility.

Additionally, there’s a lot of cutting-edge, emerging technologies being developed here in the Bay Area which I’m looking forward to tapping into. I believe partnership between academia and commercial outfits to be critical in developing the next generation of cancer therapies and diagnostic tools.

What’s your top priority for the UCSF Helen Diller Cancer Center as its new leader?

We’ve already started a strategic review of UCSF organizational structures and our strengths and weaknesses.

With the opening of the new UCSF Bakar Cancer Hospital at Mission Bay there will be huge new opportunities. This review will allow us to work out how we might be best configured to achieve our ultimate goal, that of delivering new advances to cancer patients in the most rapid fashion.

Where do you see the fight against cancer in 10 years? 20?

History proves that predicting exact timelines in this area is a tricky business.

Let’s say that in the coming decades we will first see much better and long-term disease control. A smorgasbord of therapies will be available – conventional, new targeted drugs and immune therapies – and these will be increasing used in rational sequential and combination strategies. This will initially result in the stabilization of advanced disease with more cures in early disease.

We should also eventually see cures of some currently lethal advanced cancers. Methods of early detection will become much more efficient.

Unfortunately, I fear the fight against tobacco use will still be ongoing around the world. Pinpointing cancer risk and cancer prevention will rightly be getting much more attention.

What advice do you have for young researchers?

I’ve been asked this question a number of times and generally my answer is “Don’t take advice from old f*rts like me.” If I have to answer I would say: Find your own path, everyone is different; get excited; take risks, don’t be boring; change the world.

What are you most excited about regarding living in SF?

The adventure.

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