The California Cure The Gene Stalker: Dr. Dennis J. Slamon

In the late 1970s, nothing haunted Dr. Dennis J. Slamon more than watching chemotherapy and radiation help some breast-cancer patients and devastate others. Among the grimmest prognoses at the time were those of the nearly one in four women—45,000 in the U.S. and 250,000 worldwide annually—whose tumors tested positive for the Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 (HER-2). The presence of HER-2 often meant recurrence or death just two or three years after receiving the best available therapies.

Much like a detective examines clues to solve crimes, Slamon and his research team essentially became gene profilers, investigating and proving the role HER-2 plays in this type of cancer’s deadly rampage. Experiments with humanized mouse-antibodies eventually revealed a combination that blocked the rogue protein, halting HER-2–positive breast cancer in its tracks. That combination, ultimately named Herceptin, significantly improved disease-free survival rates when combined with chemotherapy. But the trek from theory to treatment took 12 grueling years.

Persistent threats of funding cuts by Genentech, which owned the research, made Herceptin’s future uncertain, despite promising findings. Fortunately, friends like anticancer activist Lilly Tartikoff and Lisa C. Paulson of the Entertainment Industry Foundation shared Slamon’s vision and raised tens of millions for his work. Because money is to cancer research as oxygen is to breathing, Slamon reached his goal in November 2006, when Herceptin became one of the first molecularly targeted therapies for use in early stage, HER2—positive breast cancer ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The drug’s release changed HER-2–positive breast-cancer patients from having among the worst outcomes to having among the best—in some cases a combination of the drug and chemotherapy actually cures [see NOTE] the patient. Herceptin works synergistically with other chemotherapy treatments, increasing disease-free survival time by 50 percent.

Slamon, who is director of UCLA’s Clinical/Translational Research and director of the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program at Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, has won more than a dozen major national and international awards for his work, and Herceptin is now a billion-dollar product annually for Genentech. However, the story of Slamon and Herceptin—so dramatic that a book and Lifetime network movie have been created about them—doesn’t end there. In June, Slamon learned that Herceptin shows promise in treating HER-2–amplified gastric cancer—approximately 20 percent of all cases.

And cancer is about to take a few more hits: In addition to looking for more effective diagnosis and treatment options for ovarian and other breast cancers, Slamon is conducting clinical trials of a HER-2–positive ovarian-cancer treatment and is also training six teams of UCLA researchers to use the same mutation-targeting tactics to find treatments for lung, colorectal and pancreatic cancers; sarcomas; and melanomas.

“The day is here, he says, where the science exists to create targeted, less toxic therapies as an alternative to “throwing in a hand grenade and hoping to kill more bad cells than good cells.” —Gwen Moran