Embracing a Challenge: Breast Cancer Expert Pushes Forward After Much Success

Beth Fand Incollingo @fandincollingo
Published: Friday, Apr 12, 2013
José Baselga, MD, PhD

José Baselga, MD, PhD, speaks at the 30th Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference, hosted by Physicians’ Education Resource (PER) in March.

For José Baselga, there was no escape from the field of medicine. As a child in Barcelona, Spain, it was all around him.

Catalonia, the region where Baselga grew up, has an excellent educational system that is known for generating doctors, he said, and his father and grandfather were both physicians. Eventually, all of Baselga’s siblings chose medical careers.

“Medicine was the natural thing to do,” he said.

But it was his love of a challenge that drew Baselga, MD, PhD, to oncology, a field he has helped to define as both a leader of cancer research institutions and as a researcher himself.

“I wanted to do something that was interesting and could potentially change people’s lives, and I realized that cancer was a big unsolved problem,” he said. “We had many cancer patients with very poor therapies, yet we had the sense that things were going to start moving. It was the time when oncogenes were being described and the first chemotherapies in breast cancer appeared, so I thought it was going to be a very important area for those of us who like challenges—clearly the area where we could solve the most problems in the next 30 years.”

During those three decades, Baselga has contributed significantly to the progress he envisioned.

Through his research and by leading clinical trials, the doctor has helped to develop new drugs and combination therapies for the treatment of breast cancer, including the early targeted therapy trastuzumab (Herceptin) and the more recent pertuzumab (Perjeta), and is now pursuing the development of phosphatidylinositol 3-(PI3) kinase inhibitors to fight resistance to those drugs.

When he was just 35, Baselga took on the task of building a clinical research program from scratch at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital, in his native Barcelona.

Now, at 53, he’s helping to guide one of the world’s top oncology institutions. In January, Baselga stepped into the role of physician-in-chief of Memorial Hospital at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City, where, in the 1990s, he had completed a fellowship and worked as an instructor. In the job, the doctor is leading 834 attending physicians, managing patient care, and overseeing clinical and translational research.

“This is a very exciting moment in oncology, and in the next few years I plan to contribute by helping the institution and its mission,” he said. “I have no goals except to be blessed to continue at Sloan. That’s all I can ask for.”

Shouldering Diverse Responsibilities

In his new role, Baselga juggles a variety of responsibilities.

The broadest involve “securing the quality and safety of the day-to-day operations of Memorial Hospital, overseeing clinical programs, having a close working relationship with department chairs, making sure we are a financially viable institution, and overseeing the expansion of the cancer center,” Baselga said.

Another goal is to expand clinical research at MSKCC, Baselga said, in areas including his own research focus—molecular targeted therapies—and immunology.

“The challenges are significant, so we need to make sure a program is in place,” he said. “That’s already happening in tumors, but, like everyone else, we need to expand on routine mutational analysis of tumors.”

Finally, Baselga is determined to streamline the process of obtaining approval for clinical trial protocols from the hospital’s decision makers.

“We cannot afford to have protocols lingering in review for months,” he said. “One of the first things I did here was to announce a new deputy physician-in-chief for clinical research, Paul Sabbatini, MD. Dr Sabbatini will help provide the capacity to implement all these changes.”

At the same time, Baselga is continuing to do the kind of work that has made him a renowned expert in the intricacies of breast cancer.

He continues to design and lead clinical trials and, as always, is running a lab, although it’s small and staffed with senior faculty to keep it operating smoothly. In addition, Baselga has his own small clinic where he sees breast cancer patients.

“It’s important that we all do what we do best, and that, in academic positions and centers, leadership continues to be involved in research,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s easy to get disconnected.”

A History of Leadership

Baselga learned how to guide an oncology institution when he was invited, just two years after finishing a second fellowship at MSKCC, to become chairman of the Medical Oncology Service and director of the Division of Medical Oncology, Hematology and Radiation Oncology at Vall d’Hebron.

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