He emphasizes that he’s not pointing a finger at anyone personally, but says, “You can begin to lose your edge after 10 years, and it’s best for a center to get new blood, new energy, new ideas, and a new direction.”
Currently Regents Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, Nutritional Science, and Public Health at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, David S. Alberts, MD, has spent the last 37 years at the Tucson cancer center, where has been director since 2005.
His career has largely focused on translational cancer prevention and treatment, including chemoprevention and treatment of breast, colon, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancers, and he has served at various times as chair of the Food and Drug Administration’s Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee and as a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors.
Now he says he is about to reinvent himself again, something he tries to do every 10 years to remain relevant.
“Of course I’ll do whatever the new director wants me to do. I’m not about to pass in the wind but I don’t want to be in the way either,” he said during a telephone interview while spending time with his family in Sedona during the fourth of July holiday. He added that he’s looking forward to getting away from administrative duties and back to fulltime research as the current principal investigator on five NIH or NCI grants, with some funded through 2016, including directing the center’s Skin Cancer Institute, which he founded in 2005.
When Alberts, 72, announced earlier this year that he’d be resigning as director, the University of Arizona began a nationwide search for a “dynamic and entrepreneurial director to lead its matrix-structured center,” according to an ad placed in the May 25 issue of Science.
By early summer the 13-member search committee had identified some 80 potential candidates, 20 of whom had completed applications, of which up to 10 will now go through first-round interviews this month.
Alberts said the hope is that the new director will be in place no later than July 1, 2013 and he would continue to serve until then.
‘Men and Women for All Seasons’
Cancer center directors today have to be men and women for all seasons, well versed in translational research, and eager to pursue team science, he said.
Arizona’s NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center core grant runs through 2014, and the center may request a one-year extension to accommodate the leadership transition.
Alberts called this an especially exciting time at the Tucson-based cancer center because it is planning for a second campus in Phoenix.
“There’s a big hole in the southwest United States for comprehensive cancer centers,” he said. “Arizona has the largest city in the country with four million people without a fully established cancer center, and we’ll have a whole city block in Phoenix to get us started with a 250,000 square-foot clinical facility.
“This won’t just be a storefront, but rather, a full-fledged clinical center located on the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine campus and right across the street from TGen [Translational Genomics Research Institute, a non-profit research organization focused on earlier diagnostics and targeted therapeutics].”
The cancer center already has four research facilities in Phoenix, and groundbreaking for the clinical center is planned for later this year, with the opening slated for late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
Formal relationships are in the works with other Phoenix-based medical institutions including St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, home of the Barrow Neurological Institute, according to Alberts, who said that the new entity will be dedicated to basic, clinical, translational, and prevention research as well as clinical care.
Prevention and control research are of paramount interest to Alberts, who noted that federal funding for research in that area at the UA Cancer Center is three to four times greater than for all other research programs there -- perhaps the highest percentage in the country.
He is principal investigator for the center’s R25 training grant in prevention and control. More medical oncologists need to be educated in prevention and control, he said, noting that his own interest in oncology grew out of two factors: his family history of cancer and his interest in science.
“Unfortunately I come from a cancer family,” he said. “My father had colon cancer at 36, my mother died of breast cancer at 72, and my grandmother died of breast cancer at 85.
“Early on I was conditioned that cancer was a big problem, even back into grade school. The family on my mother’s side had three physicians and a Cadillac dealer, which always gave me a kick. So it was like a lightening bolt that this was what I wanted to do.”
He called cancer research the best career in the world today, with the ability to have an impact that is higher than that in any other field.
He recalled that he was a speaker on advances in breast cancer management at an early Susan G. Komen event in Tucson in the 1990s and afterward he had asked his wife how he had done. She told him that he had forgotten to mention all the breast cancer in his family, and it was then that his “mind opened up about what a personal disease cancer was and that we all had to be aware of it, and keep physically active and be diet conscious.”
Years later, Heather Alberts would also be diagnosed with breast cancer.
He trained in medical oncology and hematology at NCI, followed by training in classical clinical pharmacology at the University of California San Francisco where he met Sydney E. Salmon, MD, in 1970.
Two years later Salmon left UCSF to “build a great cancer center in Arizona,” according to Alberts, who had also been recruited.
“But to be quite sincere, going from UCSF to Arizona in the early ‘70s was a question mark in my mind, and I wanted to see what developed at the University of Arizona before I put my hat in the ring,” he admitted.
So he waited until 1975 before moving to Tucson, and a year later the state legislature mandated that the University of Arizona Cancer Center become the state’s cancer center. NCI designation was achieved in 1978 and comprehensive status, in 1990.
Salmon, who died at 63 from pancreatic cancer in 1999, served as founding director until 1998, when he was succeeded by Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD, who left in 2003 to join TGen, where he is currently Physician in Chief and Director of Translational Research as well as Clinical Professor of Medicine at UA.
The center was under interim leadership for the next two years, before Alberts, who had been director of the cancer center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program since 1989, was named director and promised then that he did not plan to overstay his welcome.
Reducing Obesity a Key to Cancer Prevention
Alberts says that increased obesity in United States is causing a “breeding pool for all common cancers,” and that lifestyle changes are critical in preventing and controlling cancer.
“Obesity is a huge concern, but we’ll never get around the cancer problem unless we deal with lifestyle problems. It breaks my heart that physical fitness isn’t given a second thought in today’s culture. I feel every single human being has to have a physical activity at least daily for at least 30 minutes, and preferably 60 minutes.”
At age 72 he spends up to two hours a day exercising: first thing in morning and in the evening on an exercise bicycle, treadmill, and elliptical fitness cross-trainer, he noted.
But he also multitasks and uses the time on emails or writing -- “It’s become a part of my life. Without it I'd be a physical wreck, let alone a cancer patient.”
Alberts said that there is a good deal of research on the mechanism by which physical activities decrease risk for common cancers. He is also adamant about sun safety and the Skin Cancer Institute he heads at Arizona is working on developing more effective topical agents that will interact with skin cancer pathways.
“We have to get politicians and people who care about us interested in lifestyle [changes], with physical activity and nutrition as a major part of our curriculum. We cannot continue this way, and as a nation we can’t afford to allow ourselves to continue to grow obese.”
Cancer prevention and control through healthy lifestyle choices also happens to be an Alberts family affair.
His wife Heather, a breast cancer survivor, founded the cancer center’s Better Than Ever Program, which was designed to encourage participants to make exercise a regular part of life as part of an effort to prevent cancer.
The walking program has trained some 3,500 people for 10K’s or half-marathons and raised about $2 million for women’s cancer research at the center, and at age 71 Heather is planning to run her 15th half-marathon this year. She also hikes the Grand Canyon annually with 10 of her best friends.
The couple has two children, a daughter who developed a program for healthy children stressing the importance of physical activity, nutrition, and sun safety; and a son who owns two medical device companies -- and Dave Alberts claims that the greatest accomplishment in his life are his five grandchildren.