Researcher at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center wins lifetime achievement award

October 10, 2003

Renowned cancer researcher Dr. Owen Witte, who pioneered the research linking a mutant gene to chronic myeloid leukemia, has won the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's prestigious de Villiers International Achievement Award.

The award, the highest scientific honor given by the society, lauds Witte for his lifetime achievement in cancer research and recognizes his significant contributions to understanding the cause of certain blood cancers and immune disorders -- findings that have led to the development of improved therapies for patients.

Specifically, Witte's research has been instrumental in the evolution of the molecularly targeted therapy, Gleevec. His work linking the mutant gene Bcr-Abl to chronic myeloid leukemia defined the molecular target for the drug and provided the basis that ultimately led to its development. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Gleevec in May 2001.

"Witte's years of research laid the groundwork for a milestone in the treatment of leukemia," said Dwayne Howell, president and chief executive officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "His work has given hope to thousands of patients, and we are proud to recognize his great accomplishments in the fight against these life-threatening diseases."

The de Villiers International Achievement Award was created in 1953 to recognize outstanding research contributions that advance the treatment and prevention of leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma. The award is named for the founders of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the de Villiers family, whose son, Robert, died of leukemia. The award consists of a medal and a grant of $100,000 given over a two-year period, which will support a research fellow in Witte's laboratory.

"The de Villiers Award is a very special form of recognition for me," Witte said. "In my training, I have been fortunate to have three terrific mentors: the late Henry Kaplan of Stanford, who was one of the leading figures in cancer research and radiotherapy; Irv Weissman of Stanford, who has led the field of hematopoietic stem cell biology; and David Baltimore, now at CalTech, who discovered the genetic mechanism of replication of retroviruses. All three have previously won the de Villiers Award and to be considered in their company is a great honor."

The award was presented Oct. 1 at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's annual Journey of Hope Research Award Dinner in Washington, D.C.

"We are gratified to see the pioneering work of Owen Witte recognized by this prestigious award," said Judith C. Gasson, director of UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center. "His body of work exemplifies progress made over the past two decades in basic science yielding more effective and less toxic therapies for cancer patients."

An investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a scientist at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center and a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, Witte also is researching the possible causes of prostate cancer. In addition to his other titles, he holds the President's Chair in developmental immunology and also is a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology. He also has a long-standing interest in the education of physician/scientists and currently directs the UCLA Medical Scientist Training Program, which provides combined medical and doctorate training for a highly select group of medical students.

Witte earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his medical degree from Stanford University. During his career, he has received numerous cancer research and hematology awards, including the Milken Foundation Award in Basic Cancer Research, the Rosenthal Award from the American Association for Cancer Research and the Dameshek Prize from the American Society of Hematology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Microbiology.
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UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center is composed of more than 240 cancer researchers and clinicians engaged in cancer research, prevention, detection, control and education. The center, one of the nation's largest comprehensive cancer centers, is dedicated to promoting cancer research and applying the results to clinical situations.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is the world's largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research and providing education and patient services. The society's mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Since its founding in 1949, the society has provided more than $358 million for research specifically targeting blood cancers, including more than $110 million from 2001 to 2003. For more information, visit www.LLS.org, or contact Jon Garbo at (914) 821-8969.

For more information on the Jonsson Cancer Center, visit the center's Web site at www.cancer.mednet.ucla.edu.

University of California - Los Angeles

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