The passing of a visionary in cancer research and clinical oncology: José Baselga, 1959-2021

José Baselga, a visionary leader in translational science and precision oncology and VHIO’s Founding Director.

The international scientific cancer community, along with all other stakeholders in oncology, are mourning the passing of an outstanding scientific leader and eminent trailblazer within the oncology field, José Baselga. José was a global reference in medical oncology, a pioneer of translational cancer research, who made essential contributions to improving outcomes for numerous cancer patients worldwide.

By integrating patient care within a multidisciplinary program connecting basic, clinical and translational cancer science, where optimal patient care is conciliated with innovative translational research, he spearhead efforts to rapidly transform cancer discovery into clinical benefits for patients. As early as 1990, José was carving out a new paradigm for cancer research through the translational approach – a concept which has only relatively recently been embraced by the professional cancer community. Throughout his illustrious career he consequently developed and conducted clinical and translational research in parallel – many years before the term ‘translational’ entered the oncology lexicon.

This unique research model emboldened him to create the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), which he founded in 2006 as its first Director. “From the outset, José had one guiding principle for VHIO. Namely, to seamlessly bridge preclinical and clinical research in order to foster a continuous virtuous cycle of knowledge from bench to bedside and back. This translational approach continues to be at the very core of VHIO’s philosophy, which I passionately pursue alongside our multidisciplinary teams,” observed Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director.

In short, José turned his vision into a reality. Aided by direct access to patients and his purely translational model, and under Josep Tabernero’s direction since 2010, VHIO has rapidly gained its rightful place as one of the few cancer institutes to swiftly transform discovery in oncology into benefits for patients.

“His strategy has been widely adopted as the model of excellence in the current era of precision oncology. In short, José’s vision establishes him as one of the godfathers of this connective, multidisciplinary approach to more effectively combat cancer, in collaboration,” added Josep Tabernero.

He concluded, “While José’s passing represents an unfillable void in cancer research, treatment and care, he leaves a tremendous legacy for the scientific community. This gift will continue to inspire present and future generations of cancer researchers and clinical investigators. He will be deeply missed by us all.”

On behalf of all of us at VHIO, we send our heartfelt condolences to José Baselga’s family, loved ones and friends. We will collectively seek to build on his incredible legacy.

José Baselga’s illustrious career trajectory
José Baselga studied medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), and began his training in Internal Medicine at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), which he completed at the Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, USA. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from UAB. Upon completing the residency in Medical Oncology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York and some years of practice as attending physician in the same Institution, he returned to Spain in 1996 as a Full Professor at UAB and Head of the Medical Oncology Service at HUVH.

José’s vision, work ethic and impeccable commitment to medical oncology quickly lifted the department to new heights. These qualities coupled with his devotion to integrating translational science and clinical research, rapidly established the department as an international reference. José created an environment in which optimal patient care is conciliated with innovative translational research, all in the context of a Public Health System – an exemplary model that has since been adopted and adapted across borders.

This unique research model emboldened him to create the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), which he founded in 2006 as its first Director. It is thanks to José’s inspired vision, coupled with Josep Tabernero’s continued leadership since 2010, that VHIO has become a leading comprehensive cancer center of international acclaim, and one of the few cancer institutes to swiftly transform discovery in oncology into benefits for patients.

José returned to the USA as Division Chief of Hematology and Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School in Boston in 2010, while still maintaining his research activity at VHIO. In 2013 he joined MSKCC as Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer until 2019.  He was then appointed as AstraZeneca’s Executive Vice President Oncology R&D, and member of its Senior Executive Committee.

His long-standing research interests centered on the development of targeted therapies against breast cancer and studying strategies to overcome mechanisms of resistance. José Baselga conducted the initial clinical trials with the monoclonal antibodies cetuximab and trastuzumab and led the clinical development of several new agents including pertuzumab, everolimus and PI3K inhibitors. His main focus in the laboratory and in the clinic surrounded novel anti‐HER2 agents, and the identification of mechanisms of resistance to anti‐HER2 agents and therapeutic approaches to target the PI3K pathway. He also directed several neo‐adjuvant trials in breast cancer and was at the forefront of developing biomarker‐based early and translational clinical trials.

José’s crucial role in breast cancer drug development in particular has been recognized through several prestigious recognitions and prizes. Honoring his pivotal laboratory and clinical studies, just some of the many accolades include the Gold Medal, Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, New York; Joseph B. Martin Award, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Elected Member, National Academy of Medicine; XXVIII Catalonia International Prize; Dr. Trueta Medal; Rey Jaime I Prize, and the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Lifetime Achievement Award, and the ESMO Award.

Also reflective of his countless contributions to the cancer field, tremendous leadership, and dedication to improving outcomes for cancer patients, José Baselga served as President for two of the most prestigious societies in oncology; the European Society for Medical Oncology – ESMO (2008-2009), and American Association for Cancer Research – AACR (2015-2016). His expertise was also sought by numerous expert committees, executive and advisory boards across a wide range of organizations and professional entities.