Meet hero doctor of cancer patients

He is known simply as the ‘Gene Stalker’: a doctor driven by a “murderous resolve” and single-minded determination to cure cancer. Watch this YouTube clip of UCLA’s Dr Slamon talk about the development of Herceptin.

Dennis Slamon, an American oncologist, has been credited with changing the way the scientific world treats breast cancer and for creating a wonder drug, Herceptin, which has prolonged the lives of hundreds of thousands of women across the world.

Today in Dublin, some of those women will get a chance to thank their hero in person, as Dr Slamon arrives in Ireland to consult with Irish oncologists and scientists who are partnering with the pioneering American on exciting new research.

“He is about as decorated as you can be without having a Nobel Prize — and that can happen yet,” said Professor John Crown of St Vincent’s Hospital and head of the Cancer Clinical Research Trust.

Haunted by the deaths of so many breast cancer sufferers in the 1970s, Dr Slamon decided to look at breast cancer not just as a single disease, but as one broken down by several different sub-types.

Turning his medical skills into a detective hunt, Slamon soon honed in on a protein found in a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer — HER-2 positive — and developed a drug, Herceptin, which began to show dramatic results in clinical trials.

Despite battling sceptics and reluctant drug companies, Slamon — who is currently UCLA’s director of Clinical/Translational Research — spearheaded a gruelling 12-year battle to release the localised but high-risk breast cancer drug, which was eventually approved in 2006.

Now, thanks to his dedication, women with HER-2 positive tumours have some of the best survival rates among breast cancer patients and Herceptin has become a billion-dollar annual earning powerhouse.

Herceptin has also changed the way in which scientists view cancer as a whole, and is currently being expanded in clinical trials to treat people with ovarian and lung cancer.

“We were using a one-size-fits-all approach to attack anything that was anything but one size,” Slamon told the Irish Independent in an exclusive interview before his arrival in Dublin.

The son of Syrian immigrants, Slamon grew up in a modest home in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. His soft-spoken, humble manner belies his gutsy battle with critics and drug company scions, which inspired the television movie based on his life, Living Proof.

“Dr Slamon is one of the great heroes of modern times,” said actor Harry Connick Jnr, who played the doctor in the movie.

In the past decade, Slamon has forged a close alliance with Professor Crown at St Vincent’s hospital, who encouraged Ireland’s participation in the early Herceptin trials. Since then, hundreds of Irish women have taken part in clinical breast cancer trials led by Slamon and the All Ireland Cooperative Oncology Research group.

Slamon praised Ireland’s cancer care and “forward-thinking” oncologists, saying that they are “every bit as good as any oncologists I have ever worked with anywhere in the world”.

‘I was aware that they were willing to think innovatively and think outside the box, which is why I approached Professor Crown about the collaboration,” he said.

For women in Ireland, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Slamon said that the news looks good: “Their chances of surviving their breast cancer are very high. Mortality rates are down. The survivability of this disease is way up over what it was just 15 years ago.”

And for the survivors he hopes to meet tonight at the Herbert Park Hotel in Dublin, Slamon’s message is simple: “It’s going to get even better.”

An Evening with Dr Dennis Slamon is on tonight at 7pm at the Herbert Park Hotel, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.  Admission is free.

Source: Irish Independent – November 04 2010