Society 21/03/2021

Renowned oncologist Josep Baselga, the driving force behind personalised medicine, dies at the age of 61

He was medical director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, considered to be the best cancer research centre in the world

2 min
Dr. Baselga in an archive picture

Josep Baselga, renowned oncologist and director of research and development at the multinational AstraZeneca (one of the companies that has developed a vaccine against covid-19), has died at the age of 61 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressive degenerative neurological disorder, according to La Vanguardia . The Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), a research centre he founded and chaired between 2006 and 2010, has confirmed his death. Born in Barcelona in 1959, Baselga played a key role in the development of drugs and strategies to overcome resistance mechanisms that have improved the treatment of several types of cancer, especially breast cancer, making him an international reference in cancer research.

As the driving force behind the concept of personalised medicine in cancer treatment, Baselga has received numerous awards, including the 2016 International Catalonia Award, along with two internationally renowned Catalan oncologists, Manel Esteller and Joan Massagué, for "his revolutionary work, especially in cancer research, which contributes significantly to the advancement of biomedicine worldwide".

A graduate in medicine from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and professor at the same university, Baselga began his training in Internal Medicine at Vall d'Hebron University Hospital, studies which he completed at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and later in the oncology department at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. He spent 30 years in the United States, but returned to Catalonia in 1996 as a full professor at the UAB and until 2010 he directed the medical oncology service at Vall d'Hebron Hospital and founded the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) in Barcelona, a centre that in a statement has conveyed its condolences to his family and friends, and thanked him for his legacy, which they hope to "continue and improve".

From 2010 to 2012 he was Director of the Division of Haematology and Oncology and Associate Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, while maintaining his scientific activity at Vall d'Hebron. In 2013 he became medical director of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, considered the best cancer research centres in the world.

"I have spent my career caring for cancer patients"

Yet in September 2018, he was forced to resign after it emerged that he had concealed significant financial income from pharmaceutical and biotech companies in dozens of research articles he published in prestigious specialist journals. Baselga wanted to make it clear that while he may have been "inconsistent in disclosure, the articles do not question the validity of the research and studies that were published". "I have spent my career caring for cancer patients and bringing new therapies to the clinic with the goal of extending and saving lives", he said. Since the beginning of 2019, he had been leading cancer R&D at multinational AstraZeneca.

Baselga was also a member of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and founder of the Foundation for Oncology Studies and Research (FERO). According to VHIO, Baselga was committed from the beginning to the biological basis of diseases, many years before the advances in the identification of the human genome were known.

In fact, this model for seeking excellence in the clinical practice of multidisciplinary care teams and, at the same time, promoting applied research, was quickly disseminated and acquired by other hospitals in Spain and the rest of the world, highlights the VHIO. For this reason, he was elected president of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) and later of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), promoting, in both societies, fundamental changes to meet the challenges of the future.