Back when few people thought cancer was a preventable disease, Dr. David Alberts was laying the bedrock of the prevention movement. Trained in oncology and clinical pharmacology, Dr. Alberts was an early proponent of moving preventive medicine to the forefront of the war on cancer. In the 1990s, he served as chair of the chemoprevention advisory committee to the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
For him, the decision to push until the prevention aspect of the field was given the respect it deserved was a no-brainer. “The real opportunity to make a dent in mortality statistics is in prevention,” he says.
Dr. Alberts is the director of the Arizona Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Arizona, and he created the university’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program from virtually nothing. After prompting the NCI to change its guidelines for cancer centers to stipulate they should include prevention to be considered “comprehensive,” Dr. Alberts was approached by Arizona’s then-head of medicine to create the center’s prevention program.
“He basically gave me an ultimatum. He said, ‘You need to do this or you’ll never get another raise,’” Dr. Alberts said. “I said, ‘All right. So what resources are you giving me?’” But there were no resources – he had to pull the entire program up by its bootstraps. So he called an organizational meeting for the new program, and three people showed up. It was a start, but they still needed money. As luck would have it, that was about the same time the Prevent Cancer Foundation started what has now been a 22-year run. Because of the relatively small size of the national cancer community, Dr. Alberts saw the Foundation as having a unique niche in the field and he began a relationship with the Foundation that was fostered by mutual respect and admiration.
“The Foundation’s funding was instrumental to the growth of Arizona’s prevention program. We got several grants here from the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and that helped us to build our program,” he said. “The way to defeat cancer is to attack it early or keep it from developing at all. We wouldn’t be able to do this work without this type of support. I give Prevent Cancer a lot of credit.”
Indeed, the program has grown from next to nothing to receiving an estimated three times as much in NCI research funding as any other scientific prevention program in the Arizona Cancer Center. It’s also launched the research careers of many accomplished and extraordinary scientists with Prevent Cancer’s funding, including Drs. Elena Martinez and Anna Giuliano, both of whom now serve on Prevent Cancer’s Medical Advisory Board along with their former mentor. Dr. Alberts is in his 40th year of practicing oncology and he shows no signs of slowing down.
He is credited with helping to develop two major drugs currently used to treat leukemia on the market and he’s also an editor of the journal, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, a periodical devoted to publishing the latest research on cancer prevention. In 2001, the journal Science rated him as the third leading clinical researcher in the U.S. in relation to National Institutes of Health funding.
Dr. Alberts is now moving the science of prevention into new directions, using diet, nutrition and chemical combinations to enhance our body’s own ability to protect itself. He’s worked with boosting the impact of vitamins, as well as developing molecules that help bronze the skin in a way that creates a protective barrier against UVB rays.
As vice-chairman and scientific director emeritus of the Foundation’s board of directors and a member of its medical advisory board, a relationship anchored in prevention continues today.