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.
I first met Jose as a junior doctor following his visit to the Marsden in the early 2000's. I always remembered how generous he was with his time and interest in what the juniors were working on. We became friends and colleagues years later sharing an interest in cancer evolution and drug resistance, and more recently work in the minimal residual disease field of solid tumour oncology. I will always remember his enthusiasm for new concepts that broke with traditional ways of thinking and his passion for changing cancer care for the better through bold strategic moves- disrupting the field. He will be missed by all of us- but his influence and passion will live on encouraging us to be bolder and more disruptive.
It was with great sadness I learned that Jose had passed away. I have so many good memories of the interaction with him over the years, through AACR, ECCO, ESMO, and EACR. He was a splendid scientist and one of my favorite speakers and discussants. He was several times in Norway giving keynote lectures in meetings I organized during my period as EACR president. He was an inspiration to many young physician-scientists over many years and he will be greatly missed by the EACR/ECCO/ESMO community.
Past EACR president
Professor Emerita PhD, MD (h.c.)
Department of Cancer Genetics, Institute for Cancer Research, Oslo University Hospital, Norway
I met Jose Baselga in 1996. His communicative energy, passion for the patients, clarity of thinking, and demanding attitude changed my trajectory. Jose was an extraordinary visionary. He is the father of precision medicine and biology-driven clinical trials. He has trained or touched hundreds of oncologists and scientists across the world. His very demanding attitude was sometimes misunderstood. He was never demanding for the simple sake of perfection, or to hurt others but because he believed, we needed to deliver our very best for cancer patients. Cancer eradication was not a vague goal but the focus of his entire life. We have lost one of the greatest medical minds, a man of passion, science, and faith. I pray for his beloved family.
I have known Jose Baselga for nearly 20 years. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to work closely with Jose since he joined AZ 2 years ago. He had such clarity of thought, scientific focus, passion for the impact on patients and on developing the people in the organization as well as a mischievous sense of fun. He was truly loved and admired across the organization. Just as he had a transformative influence on VHIO, MGH, and MSKCC, he also had a transformative influence at AZ and we will miss him deeply.
I have had the privilege to become a friend of Jose when he was a postdoctoral fellow working in New York at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering with John Mendelsohn. We had the opportunity to work together when Jose went back to Barcelona and established the Vall d' Hebron, which was the foundation of what is now the Vall d' Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO). A lot of young researchers from my institution have had the opportunity to work in Barcelona under his mentorship and subsequently under Josep Tabernero. Jose was also the key person as President to boost the renovation of ESMO, the European Society for Medical Oncology. I will miss a great person and the most talented cancer researcher and medical oncologist of my generation.