Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS
San Francisco, California
President, Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center
Senior Vice President for Cancer Services, UCSF Health
Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology
Identifying new therapeutic targets for aggressive forms of breast cancer.
Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive disease with poor prognosis. Although TNBC patients benefit from standard chemotherapy, and some fare well with new immunotherapies, overall, they face high recurrence rates and are more likely to develop chemoresistance. There is therefore an urgent need to develop new targeted therapies for these patients.
Dr. Ashworth and his team identified a protein called xCT as a potentially promising therapeutic target for TNBC. This protein serves as a molecular transporter; it sits within the outer membranes of cells, funneling specific molecules into the cell and expelling others. Tumor cells can use it to eject chemotherapies and take in nutrients. While it is dispensable for the function of healthy cells, loss of xCT function is lethal to tumor cells, making it an attractive therapeutic target. Importantly, xCT is present in approximately half of TNBC tumors and high levels are associated with worse outcomes for patients. Over the past year the team pursued two complementary strategies that will help them identify promising xCT therapies. They engineered both a nano sensor and a chemical probe, which will help signal if a drug they are testing is effectively blocking xCT.
Dr. Ashworth’s team will pursue multiple strategies to generate xCT therapies, including developing therapeutic antibodies and testing thousands of small molecular compounds that might block xCT’s activity. Over the next year, they will complete their initial screen of FDA-approved therapies—a strategy that can repurpose drugs which are already known to be safe in patients because they were approved for other diseases. The team is halfway through testing this library of compounds and have already found a few candidates that affect xCT activity. Promising drugs will be assessed in the laboratory with the ultimate goal of being tested in clinical trials.
Alan Ashworth, PhD, FR, is President of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco, a role he began in January 2015. He was previously Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, United Kingdom.
In 1999 he was appointed the first Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre where he was also Professor of Molecular Biology and leader of the Gene Function team. Professor Ashworth’s Directorship ended in January 2011 when was appointed Chief Executive of the ICR.
A translational biologist and laboratory researcher, Dr. Ashworth’s research focuses on understanding breast cancer genetics and applying what he learns to change the way patients are treated. He was a key part of the team that identified the BRCA2 breast cancer susceptibility gene, which is linked to an increased risk of some types of cancer. Ten years later, Dr. Ashworth found a way to kill off BRCA1- and 2-related tumor cells by treating them with PARP inhibitors, which amplifies the damage caused by the broken DNA repair machinery in those cells. This exemplifies the genetic principle of synthetic lethality in cancer therapy.
Dr. Ashworth is an elected member of EMBO and the Academy of Medical Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has been the recipient of a number of scientific prizes and awards including The European Society of Medical Oncology Lifetime Achievement Award, the David T. Workman Memorial Award of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation and the Meyenburg Foundation’s Cancer Research Award and was the inaugural winner of the 2013 Basser Global Prize. He has also recently been selected as the recipient of the 2015 Genetics Society Medal.
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