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David Alberts: Survival of the fittest

David Alberts: Survival of the fittest

ABSTRACT: Diverse career keeps focus on single-minded devotion to science and its effect on quality of life.

Desert living presents many challenges: extreme weather, lack of water, unfriendly cacti, and lethal creatures. Adaptability plus a strong survival instinct are key. David S. Alberts, MD, has plenty of both. When he relocated to the University of Arizona, he’d just finished up five years at the University of California, San Francisco, pouring his efforts into leukemia and myeloma research.

Once in Tucson, he had to jockey for a place on the academic food chain. “My colleague said, ‘Dave, I’m the leukemia guy.’ Another said, ‘I’m the myeloma guy. Those are off-limits for you.’ I said, ‘OK, what’s left?’ They said, ‘Pelvis.’ So I became the GI oncology and the GYN oncology guy,” Dr. Alberts told Oncology News International.

It’s one of many instances in his career when Dr. Alberts has successfully improvised to thrive. From his start as a clinical pharmacologist to his current position as the director of the Arizona Cancer Center, Dr. Alberts has never let trying circumstances get in the way of achieving his goals.

Serious illness, serious student
Dr. Alberts grew up in Milwaukee as an athlete with a passing interest in academics. At age 13, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an experience that transformed him. “I used to be a four-letter athlete, and there I was, completely knocked out by this illness,” he explained. “Fortunately, corticosteroids came on the scene for the disease and I was able to turn it around. It had a huge impact on me. I was amazed with the medical profession and how well I was treated.”

Dr. Alberts buckled down and set his sights on medicine. A career in cancer research seemed preordained: His 36-year-old father had survived colon cancer, while his grandfather died of the same disease. His grandmother and mother battled breast cancer (as did his wife Heather Alberts).

“I have a horrendous family history with cancer,” he said. “So that was something I always kept in mind.”

Putting research into practice
Dr. Alberts’ CV is 100-plus pages of landmark achievements in internal medicine, clinical pharmacology, hematology/oncology, colon cancer, public health, nutritional sciences, cancer prevention, and, of course, ovarian cancer. His endeavors in academia have been multifold as a student, investigator, scholar, editor, author, and teacher (see Table on cancernetwork.com).

Dr. Alberts attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn, earned his MD from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, returned to his home state for an internship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, served as a clinical associate at the NCI’s Baltimore Cancer Research Center, and completed his residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. His academic appointments include numerous clinical instructorships and professorships, many at UCSF.

In 1975, he accepted an invitation from Sydney Salmon, MD, to help build the Tucson-based cancer center. Thirty years later, Dr. Alberts took over the leadership of the NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center for the entire state.

As varied as his career has been, there is a dominant theme, explained Maurie Markman, MD. Dr. Markman collaborated with Dr. Alberts (along with Stephen Howell, MD, at University of California, San Diego) on the research and trials that ultimately led to the NCI issuing a 2006 clinical announcement supporting postsurgical intraperitoneal (IP) over IV chemotherapy in advanced ovarian cancer.

“I don’t know anybody more passionate about the impact of research on our patients,” said Dr. Markman, vice president for clinical research at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “Dave’s goal was that research should always improve survival and the quality of lives of the patients.”

The situation that led him to become “the GI and GYN oncology guy” ultimately met Dr. Alberts’ goal to always put science to work in the real world.

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