Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD
Cancer patients around the world are lucky that the graduate engineering programs in Spain require a large amount of high-level math. Had they been just a tad less rigorous, Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, would never have become an oncologist and uncovered much of what we now know about using immunotherapy to combat cancer.
Ribas has spent the past two decades straddling the worlds of fundamental research and clinical trials, using his discoveries about what will and won’t make the immune system target tumors to get the best responses in important drug tests.
These days, with research dollars pouring into immunotherapy, Ribas is busier than ever, managing about two dozen researchers at his ever-growing laboratory at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC). He also is among the scientists who have joined the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a collaborative $250 million research effort launched earlier this year by tech entrepreneur Sean Parker.
In recognition of his many accomplishments in the field, Ribas was honored with a 2015 Giants of Cancer Care award in melanoma.
“Toni didn’t invent any of the individual checkpoint inhibitors that are in use or under investigation, but his research has made checkpoint inhibitors a practical treatment by giving us a better idea about who will benefit from them and, uniquely, studying not only their detailed mechanisms in people but also important aspects of molecular biology that impact therapy of melanoma,” said Kim Margolin, MD, a clinical professor of Medicine at City of Hope.
“That has enabled him and others to design successful trials that get these incredibly promising treatments to real-world patients,” she said. “He’s really everywhere in immunotherapy. Select a big paper at random and there’s a good chance his name will be on it.”
A Family of Doctors
Ribas seemed destined for medicine from the day he was born. His father was a doctor. His grandfather was a doctor. His great-grandfather was a doctor. It would have been natural for Ribas to follow in their footsteps; however, he hoped to become an engineer instead. The challenge of finding elegant, mathematical solutions to unique material problems appealed to him more than medicine. Fortunately for patients with cancer, the math eventually overwhelmed him and he shifted his focus to the less quantitative problems of human illness.
“I started engineering school and I realized pretty quickly that it was too complicated. There was just too much math. I needed something easier, and medicine was easier, at least for me, because it only really required the ability to remember a lot of stuff, and I was much better at that than advanced math,” said Ribas, a professor of Medicine, Surgery, and Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA’s medical school and the director of JCCC’s Tumor Immunology Program.
Ribas chose to follow his father into oncology, mostly because he had spent so much of his childhood hearing about the unique challenges of cancer and watching the field grow from its infancy. He completed his residency at Hospital Vall d’Hebron in 1994 and began what could have been a comfortable lifetime of clinical practice in his native city. But Ribas still had the desire to solve problems, and he decided that he’d indulge it for a short time. “When I finished my training, I had the prospect of doing more of what I had been doing, which was giving chemotherapy. There were no other real options for a medical oncologist in clinical practice in the mid-1990s. My other option was to do a research fellowship and try to discover something entirely new,” he said.
“I thought it would be more interesting to try to understand the disease better, so I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA. I wanted to work in the lab of a surgeon who was doing tumor immunology, which wasn’t a standard clinical treatment back then and was actually pretty far out on the fringes of research,” Ribas said. “Before we left, I told my wife we were coming for 1 or 2 years. It’s now 19 years later, and we’re still here.”
Early Immunotherapy Signals
The surgeon at UCLA, James Economou, MD, PhD, specialized in studying tumor types, such as liver cancer and melanoma, that responded poorly, if at all, to any treatment oncologists could throw at them. Ribas eventually discovered a technique for using dendritic cell therapy to make mice fight off melanoma, and his initial decision to stay on at UCLA stemmed from his desire to try the same technique in humans.