UCLA Health Continues to Transform Cancer Care

doctor and patient

In the late 1960s, a group of scientists and volunteers at UCLA came together to develop a cancer center they hoped would become renowned for excellence in research, education and patient care. Today, UCLA Health’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has established an international reputation for providing the best in leading-edge and traditional cancer treatments and expertly guiding the next generation of medical research. During the last five years, studies led by Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center faculty contributed to 11 new FDA-approved therapies that advance the treatment of certain cancers, improve health outcomes and enhance quality of life.

Here are five milestones highlighting the practice changing research and treatment of the center’s faculty:

Antoni Ribas

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD: Helped increase the life-expectancy for people with melanoma

Dr. Antoni Ribas led the clinical program that demonstrated the effectiveness of the drug pembrolizumab, the first-of-its-kind immunotherapy, to treat advanced melanoma. Formerly known as MK-3475, pembrolizumab is an antibody that works by blocking the immune system’s “brakes,” allowing it to recognize and attack cancer cells. This was the first of the class of PD-1 blocking antibodies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of any cancer. Dr. Ribas has significantly helped increase the life-expectancy and quality of life for people with advanced melanoma.

Dennis Slamon

Dennis Slamon, MD, PhD: Invented a drug that fights cancer at its genetic roots

Dr. Dennis Slamon’s early research led to the development of the breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), which, since its introduction in 1998, has saved thousands of women’s lives by targeting a specific genetic alteration. Herceptin has been cited as the first triumph in an emerging wave of new, more effective therapies designed to fight cancer at its genetic roots. Dr. Slamon identified a new, more aggressive subtype of breast cancer called HER2-positive (HER2+); in 1987, he discovered the link between the HER2+ gene alteration and aggressive breast cancer. He then proved the theory that if researchers could identify what was altered in a cancer cell compared to normal cells, they could attempt to target and treat it — something many cancer researchers at the time doubted would be effective.


Edward Garon, MD: Helped people with lung cancer live longer

Dr. Edward Garon pioneered the use of pembrolizumab in patients with lung cancer, a notoriously hard cancer to treat. He led the clinical program that showed the drug improved the five-year survival rate of people with advanced lung cancer. Dr. Garon and his team found treatment with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab helped more than 15% of people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer live for at least five years — when the study began in 2012, the average five-year survival rate was just 5.5% for people with that type of cancer.

See more here.

Arie Belldegrun

Arie Belldegrun, MD: Developed the first FDA approved CAR-T cell therapy

Dr. Arie Bellgedrun developed one of the first therapies to genetically engineer white blood cells to attack cancer: Yescarta, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017, a type of therapy called CAR-T (short for: chimeric antigen receptor T-cell), to treat adult blood cancer patients.


Dennis Slamon, MD, PhD, Sara Hurvitz, MD and Richard Finn, MD: UCLA researchers played key role in development of CDK inhibitors

In the early 2000s, a team of UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center researchers including Drs. Dennis Slamon, Sara Hurvitz and Richard Finn were on the forefront of discovering that cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors are effective in treating hormone receptor positive breast cancer. Their work ultimately helped lead to the FDA approval of ribociclib and other related drugs to treat metastatic breast cancer.