Frontline Cancer: Duane Roth’s vision and leadership will be missed
By Scott M. Lippman
Recently, I gathered with more than a thousand friends, colleagues, admirers and devoted family members to remember Duane Roth, who died Aug. 3 after suffering a traumatic head injury in a bicycling accident. He was 63.
For many of San Diego’s finest citizens, from former U.S. Senator Pete Wilson and UC San Diego chancellor Pradeep Khosla to Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and basketball great Bill Walton, Duane was a well-known friend and peer. And so they gathered to remember and honor him at a memorial at the Church of the Immaculata on the campus of the University of San Diego.
But more importantly, Duane touched the lives of all San Diegans. He loved the city, the region, its diverse and dynamic citizenry – and he resolutely, with tireless energy, dedicated his life to making it an even better place for everyone.
Duane arrived in San Diego in 1989 as head of Alliance Pharmaceutical, a merger of San Diego-based Fluoromed Pharmaceutical and Otisville Biopharm in southern New York. The combined company focused on developing new imaging agents and respiratory drugs, but Duane’s vision was greater and more ambitious.
In 2004, he took over Connect, an enterprise created two decades earlier to bring together scientists at UC San Diego with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who could help translate their ideas into reality.
At the time, Connect had become somewhat moribund, its purpose and support imperiled. Duane soon infused Connect with his trademark enthusiasm and determination. His motto, he told La Jolla Light in a 2009 interview, was “all things are hard before they are easy.” And so he broadened the scope of Connect, making its mission to promote innovation in all of its myriad forms throughout the region.
I first met Duane when I assumed directorship of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center about a year-and-a-half ago. At the time, Duane was deeply involved in advocating Proposition 29, a tobacco tax initiative to fund cancer research.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and lung cancer is the deadliest of all cancers, killing more people than all other cancers combined. Duane’s passion was characteristically intense and unfailing. He recognized more and better research (and its requisite funding) was needed to beat cancer. Prop. 29, alas, was narrowly rejected by voters – 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent, but Duane was undaunted. He was a champion of many causes.
Among his greatest – and one of Duane’s most shining achievements – was his steady support and leadership in the creation and conduct of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state’s ongoing, pioneering $3 billion effort to develop stem cell-based therapies, remedies and cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to arthritis to cancer.
Duane’s genius at finding connections and collaborations has helped make CIRM the thriving entity it is today, one that has already had a major clinical impact in cancer research and treatment with achievements like Catriona Jamieson’s CIRM-funded studies targeting cancer stem cells – the elusive cells within a tumor that can self-renew and cause a cancer to spread or recur.
Jamieson is an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of stem cell research at Moores Cancer Center. Duane was an early and powerful proponent of her research, helping push it into phase 1 trials. Jamieson’s work is now in the final stages of development, on the cusp of becoming one of the first targeted stem cell-based therapies in cancer treatment.
“Duane understood the sea-change that stem cell research would cause in our scientific pursuits and the practice of medicine. He was able to calm the waters as we moved forward. His devotion to helping people less fortunate than himself drove his tireless efforts as vice-chair of the governing body of CIRM,” Jamieson said.
“Patients with cancer and other degenerative disorders have lost a champion, but his effective positivity has been indelibly inscribed in the hearts and minds of those fortunate to watch him lead by example. We will strive to make sure the important initiatives he helped set in motion come to fruition.”
One of those initiatives, one that Duane was working vigorously on before his untimely death, was to ensure San Diegans would be among the first to enjoy the fruits of local biomedical research. He had become increasingly frustrated that most new drugs developed here in labs at UC San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute, The Salk Institute, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and in dozens of local biotechs were being taken elsewhere to be tested in phase 1 clinical trials.
Duane saw no reason why San Diego should not be home to its own dedicated phase 1 clinic to test early stage cutting edge therapies. This was one of his passions for many years, and he had worked with the School of Medicine to develop the concept. Most recently, especially with the recruitment of cancer specialist Razelle Kurzrock, the idea gained momentum. He found willing allies in David Brenner, vice-chancellor for health sciences and dean of the school of medicine at UC San Diego, and Gary S. Firestein, director of the Clinical and Translational Research Institute at UC San Diego, who agreed to fund development of a phase 1 unit here.
This is a game-changer in San Diego – for scientists, for biotechs, and, most importantly, for patients. In the near-future, Moores Cancer Center will have in place all of the necessary personnel, protocols and resources to conduct full-fledged phase 1 trials with local patients. We will not need to wait for others to achieve success first.
Duane liked to say all things are hard before they are easy. It will be not be easy to forge ahead without Duane. It will be a hard road indeed. But speaking for myself, for physician-scientists like Jamieson, for Dr. Brenner and the thousands of people who have benefitted in some way from Duane’s unstinting compassion and labor, we will push on.
As Duane always did.
—Scott M. Lippman, M.D., is Director of UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. His column on medical advances from the front lines of cancer research and care appears in the La Jolla Light the fourth Thursday of each month. You can reach him at email@example.com
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