José Baselga, MD, PhD, a Past President of the AACR and Fellow of the AACR Academy who was internationally renowned as a major force in the development of molecularly targeted therapies and in making precision cancer medicine a reality for patients, died March 21, 2021, at the age of 61.
Baselga was born in Barcelona, Spain, on July 3, 1959. He earned his medical and doctoral degrees from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Early in his career, he helped found the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona. Baselga served as chairman of medical oncology and helped develop the institute into one of the major translational research and cancer treatment centers in Europe.
Baselga’s research focused on developing therapeutics that target genetic mutations in tumors and on understanding the mechanisms of drug resistance. Throughout his career, he led preclinical and early-stage clinical studies of targeted therapies for breast cancer. He conducted the initial clinical trial that demonstrated that patients with advanced HER2-positive breast cancer benefited from treatment with the anti-HER2 monoclonal antibody trastuzumab (Herceptin). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved trastuzumab in 1998, and since then it has been used to treat more than 2.3 million patients.
Baselga also helped develop everolimus (Afinitor), lapatinib (Tykerb), and pertuzumab (Perjeta), which are breast cancer treatments that have been used alone or in combination with other therapeutics for the benefit of countless cancer patients.
Although his early work focused on breast cancer, his expertise helped guide research into numerous other cancer types. In recent years, Baselga’s work contributed to the development of trastuzumab deruxtecan and datopotamab deruxtecan, antibody-drug conjugates that have shown promise in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.
From 2010 to 2013, Baselga was the chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and associate director at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, also serving as professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He then joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as physician-in-chief and chief medical officer, serving additionally as professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is credited with establishing Memorial Sloan Kettering as a leader in early-phase clinical trials and in diagnostic genetic sequencing. In January 2019, he joined AstraZeneca as executive vice president for R&D oncology, forging collaborations with industry partners and championing the use of real-world evidence in clinical trials. He led a team aiming to accelerate progress in antibody-drug conjugates, cell therapy, epigenetics, and new cancer treatments. Baselga understood the power of basic science in the clinic, and his visionary work transformed treatment by bringing precision cancer medicine to the frontlines of standard of care.
Baselga joined the AACR in 1994. He was an extremely active member, serving as a senior editor of Clinical Cancer Research and a founding editor-in-chief of the high-impact AACR journal Cancer Discovery. From 2009 to 2012, he served on the AACR’s Board of Directors, and was elected AACR President for the 2015-2016 term.
As AACR President, Baselga oversaw a year of tremendous growth in the AACR. Among his many achievements, he chaired a Genomics in Clinical Medicine Think Tank, co-chaired the new Horizons in Cancer Research meeting in Shanghai, expanded the AACR’s international presence through partnerships with the European Association for Cancer Research and the European Society for Medical Oncology, and scheduled international meetings in Cape Town, South Africa and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He played an active role in the AACR’s relationship with Stand Up To Cancer, conducting research as part of the PI3K Dream Team and participating in interviews for the “Emperor of All Maladies” miniseries on PBS. He also spearheaded the AACR’s participation in the NCI Cancer Moonshot initiative and made major contributions to the development of the AACR’s Vision 2020 Strategic Plan.
Among many career awards, Baselga was recognized with the 2008 AACR-Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, which honors notable contributions to clinical care by clinical investigators early in their career. He also received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in 2004; the Annual Award from the European Society for Medical Oncology and the Professional Excellence Award in Biomedical Research from the Barcelona College of Physicians in 2005; and the King James I Award in 2008. He was also designated a Commander, Civil Order of Health, by Spain’s Ministry of Health in 2008.
In addition, Baselga was awarded the Bob Pinedo Cancer Care Award from the Society for Translational Oncology and the Gold Medal from the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in 2010; the Mike Price Gold Medal Award from the European Association for Cancer Research and the Joseph P. Martin Award from Massachusetts General Hospital in 2012; and the International Award for Cancer from the Foundation Carregal Ramiro La Rosaleda in 2013. He was inducted as a Fellow of the AACR Academy in 2014.
“José Baselga was a brilliant and caring oncologist, a supportive mentor to a whole generation of physician-scientists, and a pioneer and innovator in cancer drug development,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR. “He will be dearly missed throughout the entire world for his stellar contributions to cancer science and medicine, and for his stalwart dedication to the improved care of cancer patients.”
Leave your remembrance of Dr. Baselga below.