NEWS | November 15, 2016

Cancer research pioneer to speak on therapy advances

Alan Ashworth to address genetic vulnerabilities in certain cancer types


Alan Ashworth, renowned basic cancer scientist and president of the UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center, will present a talk on synthetic lethal approaches to cancer therapy Nov. 30 at UC Davis.

Alan Ashworth Alan Ashworth

A pioneer in precision medicine, Ashworth was a key part of the team that discovered the BRCA2 gene, which is linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. He later identified a way to exploit genetic weaknesses in cancer cells, including mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2, a discovery that has led to new ways of treating cancer.

Synthetic lethality arises when a combination of deficiencies in two or more genes leads to cell death. The deficiencies can arise through gene mutation or pharmacological intervention. Ashworth discovered that tumors deficient in the BRCA1 and BRAC2 genes are very sensitive to drugs that inhibit Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerases (PARP), which are enzymes involved in the cellular response to DNA damage. Early trials of these drugs are promising.

“Ashworth’s discovery and clinical translation inspired an entire generation of cancer researchers, including myself and others at UC Davis, using the paradigm of synthetic lethality to exploit the specific genetic vulnerabilities of many different cancer types,” says Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, director of the T32 National Cancer Institute postdoctoral training grant in Oncogenic Signals and Chromosome Biology, which is sponsoring Ashworth’s presentation.

From 1999 to 2011 Ashworth served as director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, then took over as chief executive of the ICR. In 2014 he joined UCSF as cancer center president, senior vice president of cancer services at UCSF Health, professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology, and E. Dixon Heise Distinguished Professorship in Oncology.

Ashworth will speak from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the ARC Ballroom on the UC Davis campus, 2323 Shields Ave. His talk is free and open to the public.