'One of the True Giants in Oncology,' José Baselga, MD, Dies at 61

Zosia Chustecka

March 22, 2021

The cancer community is mourning the death of internationally renowned oncologist and cancer researcher José Baselga, MD, PhD, who has died at the age of 61.

His research "led to substantial improvements in survival for patients with multiple types of breast cancer," notes the American Association of Cancer Research. He played a leading role in the pivotal clinical trials of trastuzumab (Herceptin), lapatinib (Tykerb), pertuzumab (Perjeta), and everolimus (Afinitor).

"One of the true giants in oncology, the most disruptive and brillant mind I ever met. He has shaped modern oncology and saved so many lives," wrote Jean-Charles Soria, MD, PhD, general director at Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, France, the largest comprehemnsive cancer center in Europe. He described Baselga as a "real friend and mentor" and said he was "devastated' to hear about his death.

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Baselga was born in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. After qualifying as an oncologist, he spent some early years of his medical career in the United States but returned to Barcelona to head the oncology service of the Vall Hospital d'Hebron (1996–2010). During that time, he founded the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO).

The cutting-edge research that he directed "put Barcelona and the Vall d'Hebron on the international map of cancer and among the centers of most competitive research in the world," wrote friend and mentor Josep Tabernero MD, PhD, current director of the VHIO, in a tribute.

In 2010, Baselga moved to the United States. He was chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, and subsequently became medical director and physician-in-chief of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City (2012–2018).

However, he left MSKCC under controversial circumstances after Propublica and the New York Times reported that Baselga had failed to disclose financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies in articles he had authored in prestigious medical journals, such as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine (payments were allegedly worth $3.5 million).

He resigned from MSKCC. He said that the omissions were unintentional, but he took full responsibility and corrected the information on conflicts of interest in the publications. He added that although he "may have been inconsistent in disclosing," the validity of the research and the studies that were published have not been questioned.

During the last 2 years of his life, he was executive vice-president of oncology research and development at AstraZeneca. In a statement, company CEO Pascal Soriot said: "An outstanding scientific leader, José leaves a lasting legacy in the scientific community and here at AstraZeneca.

"He set our Oncology R&D function on a remarkable trajectory.... [and] championed the collaboration with Daiichi-Sankyo over clinical development of Enhertu (trastuzumab deruxtecan) and datopotamab deruxtecan," Soriot noted.

Baselga served as president of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) from 2015 to 2016.

"Dr Baselga's death is a great loss to cancer research," the ACCR said in a statement.

"He played a leading role in the clinical trials of several therapeutics that are pillars of cancer treatment. He was a caring oncologist and supportive mentor to a whole generation of physician-scientists. He will be dearly missed through the entire world for his stellar contributions to cancer science and to the improved care of cancer patients," commented Margaret Foti, PhD, CEO at the AACR

Shock at News of Death

The news of Baselga's death was a shock to many of his colleagues and friends.

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The Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia reported that the cause of death was Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rapidly evolving, invariably fatal degenerative neurologic disorder.

"As soon as he learned the diagnosis of his illness, he decided to spend the last weeks of his life in Catalonia. He died surrounded by his family in his home in La Cerdanya," the newspaper reported. He is survived by wife Silvia and four children.

His daughter, Clara Baselga-Garriga, a pre-med student, has launched a GoFundMend page for research into CJD. "We are requesting donations for those on the frontlines of cutting-edge neurodegenerative research...with the hopes that, one day, no family will experience this pain."

She writes that when her father was diagnosed with this "rapidly progressing, fatal neurodegenerative disease, our lungs dropped to our stomachs.

"The science behind CJD is a mystery, and there are no treatments, which rendered his fighting spirit useless," she writes. Patients live between 3 weeks and 6 months on average after the onset of symptoms, she noted.

Baselga-Garriga also noted that her father died from sporadic CJD, which she described as a type different from other forms of the disease that are acquired genetically or iatrogenically (from infected instruments during surgery or from contaminated meat ― so-called mad cow disease). CJD affects about one per million people each year, she added.

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