David S. Alberts, M.D.: An Appreciation for a Cancer Prevention Pioneer

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David S. Alberts, M.D., a former director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, died in late July. As a scientist who was an early and unending advocate for cancer prevention medicine, he will always have the deep gratitude of the National Cancer Institute Division of Cancer Prevention (DCP). We send our heart-felt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

David S. Alberts, M.D.

“We mourn the passing of Dr. David Alberts, one of the forefathers of cancer prevention research,” said DCP Director Philip Castle, Ph.D. “Dave was a great clinician-scientist and mentor who spent a career conducting seminal research on how to reduce the burden of cancer by preventing and treating it. Many in the cancer prevention research community were in some way touched or influenced by Dave, and we stand on his giant shoulders as we push forward with an agenda that he helped set.”

Trained in oncology and clinical pharmacology, Dr. Alberts was an early advocate of cancer prevention research, even before he became a founding member of the University of Arizona Cancer Center. He was named director of the Cancer Center in 2005, a position he held through 2013. When he retired, Dr. Alberts served as the center’s emeritus director through 2017. We are grateful that he continued his counsel to cancer prevention researchers even after that date.

Throughout his 40-year career, Dr. Alberts focused largely on translational cancer prevention and treatment for many difficult cancers, such as breast, ovarian, prostate, colorectal and skin. The best opportunity to make a “dent” in cancer mortality statistics, he said, lay in prevention strategies that interrupted the carcinogenic process before malignancies developed, or in chemoprevention tactics that prolonged and bettered the lives of high-risk individuals facing one of these diseases. His laboratory research included work to find new endpoint biomarkers for cancer prevention trials, a much-needed way to shorten the length of trials that determine if an intervention prevents cancer.

Among his many accomplishments is a program for Prevention of Skin Cancers, including melanoma, and a partnership with the Native American community for cancer prevention. His activism to reach Native Americans and include them in clinical trials is exemplified in his work to let Native women at increased risk of breast cancer join the Breast Cancer Prevention Trial (BCPT) in the early 1990s.

“Dr. Alberts worked with local Native American tribes to allow a recruitment site for BCPT on tribal land,” said Leslie Ford, M.D., DCP Associate Director for Clinical Research, DCP. “He had staff devoted to working with the tribes, which went above and beyond what anyone else was doing at the time. He really worked for equity.”

In his extensive research portfolio, Dr. Alberts’ achievements include pioneering new approaches for treating advanced ovarian cancers and evaluations of new biomarkers for many types of cancer meriting further study in cancer prevention trials.

He served as chair of the Gynecologic Oncology Group’s Prevention Committee for many years (GOG is now part of the NRG Oncology NCI Clinical Trials Network). “He worked tirelessly to have investigators think about prevention,” noted Lori Minasian, M.D., DCP Deputy Director of DCP. “He wanted them to develop rigorous, but feasible studies that would explore a variety of interventions to prevent gynecologic cancer in at-risk women.”

Devoted to improving the lives of women with ovarian cancer, he led studies of intraperitoneal chemotherapy for treatment of the disease. He also spearheaded the LIVES study, which explores a lifestyle intervention combination of diet and exercise to prevent recurrence of ovarian cancer in patients after completing their surgery. LIVES reported on the recruitment, retention, and baseline characteristic of its cohort in January 2023, and outcomes will be published soon.

Over the years, Dr. Alberts has served as chairman of the Food and Drug Administration’s Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee, and as a member of the NCI’s Board of Scientific Advisors. His time on the board coincided with the approval of the Community Clinical Oncology Program (now the NCI Community Oncology Research Program), a project he supported with enthusiasm.

Dr. Alberts was an enthusiastic supporter of early phase cancer prevention clinical trials and mentored multiple young investigators who went on to leadership positions in the field.

He also is the recipient of numerous awards recognizing his contributions to both cancer clinical care and cancer prevention. Among them are the ASPO Distinguished Achievement Award for Lifetime Outstanding Achievements in Cancer Prevention Research, and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation Award for Excellence in Cancer Prevention Research. In 2014, he was honored with AACR’s Pioneer in Cancer Prevention Award.

Dr. Alberts was a giant in the field of cancer prevention, whose scientific insights and wise counsel will be missed. His legacy of moving preventive medicine to the forefront of the nation’s war on cancer, however, will endure.

Read more about Dr. Alberts’ legacy at the University of Arizona website.