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BCRF Grantee Since


Area(s) of Focus

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS

UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center
Senior Vice President for Cancer Services, UCSF Health
Professor of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology
University of California
San Francisco, California

Current Research

One of the major challenges in the treatment of breast cancer is the selection of the right treatment for the right patient. Breast cancer is a very heterogeneous disease and there is an urgent need for therapies that are appropriate for each particular sub-type of breast cancer. Research suggests that the genetic makeup of the tumor in part determines how a patient will respond to treatment. Understanding why some women with breast cancer respond well to their treatment while others do not is critical if we are to improve the lives of those women with the disease. The focus of Dr. Ashworth's BCRF research is to identify those genes in a tumor that modify the tumor cell response to therapy to understand how various mutations affect tumor cell behavior. The E-cadherin (CDH1) gene is one of the most frequently dysregulated genes in breast cancer and normally makes a protein that regulates cell shape and cell-cell interaction, essentially preserving tissue architecture. E-cadherin gene mutation can cause a more invasive type of tumor and while mutation occurs in only 13 percent of all breast tumors, they are particularly prevalent in the lobular subtype of breast cancer. Dr. Ashworth and his team are working to develop specific treatments to exploit E-cadherin deficiency and improve outcomes for women with lobular breast cancers.


Alan Ashworth, PhD, FR, is President of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco, a role he began in January 2015.  He was previously Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, United Kingdom.

In 1999 he was appointed the first Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre where he was also Professor of Molecular Biology and leader of the Gene Function team.  Professor Ashworth’s Directorship ended in January 2011 when was appointed Chief Executive of the ICR.

A translational biologist and laboratory researcher, Dr. Ashworth’s research focuses on understanding breast cancer genetics and applying what he learns to change the way patients are treated. He was a key part of the team that identified the BRCA2 breast cancer susceptibility gene, which is linked to an increased risk of some types of cancer.  Ten years later, Dr. Ashworth found a way to kill off BRCA1- and 2-related tumor cells by treating them with PARP inhibitors, which amplifies the damage caused by the broken DNA repair machinery in those cells.  This exemplifies the genetic principle of synthetic lethality in cancer therapy.

Dr. Ashworth is an elected member of EMBO and the Academy of Medical Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has been the recipient of a number of scientific prizes and awards including The European Society of Medical Oncology Lifetime Achievement Award, the David T. Workman Memorial Award of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation and the Meyenburg Foundation’s Cancer Research Award and was the inaugural winner of the 2013 Basser Global Prize. He has also recently been selected as the recipient of the 2015 Genetics Society Medal.

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