José Baselga, a renowned oncology researcher whose work led to major advances in breast cancer treatment, has died at 61. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Baselga served as AstraZeneca's head of oncology research and development since 2019. The company confirmed his death Sunday, but did not provide a cause. La Vanguardia, a Spanish newspaper, reported that it was due to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressing neurodegenerative illness for which there are no treatments.
In the wake of his death, Baselga's daughter, Clara Baselga-Garriga, is raising money for Creutzfeldt-Jakob research through the crowdfunding site gofundme.
Baselga spent much of his four decades in medicine searching for more precise ways to fight breast cancer. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, he conducted the initial clinical trial that ultimately led to the development of Herceptin, a blockbuster therapy that changed how certain breast cancer patients are treated.
He also steered the clinical development of Perjeta, a similar drug that was approved in 2012 to treat metastatic breast cancer.
Baselga held powerful positions at high-profile institutions throughout his career as well. In 2010, he became head of the hematology and oncology division at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. In 2012, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center named him physician-in-chief. And from 2015 to 2016, he served as president of the American Association for Cancer Research.
The association called Baselga a "revered" past president in a Sunday tweet, and offered condolences to his family, colleagues, and friends.
"One of the giants of oncology — Jose Baselga — just died," Leonidas Platanias, director of the Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern University, wrote on Twitter. "I knew Jose since we were interns in NYC in the 80s. He was as brilliant then as he was later in his career at Harvard and MSK."
"His work transformed the field of breast cancer and saved the lives of tens of thousands of women," Platanias added.
Though still highly regarded by many, Baselga's legacy isn't without controversy. In 2018, The New York Times and ProPublica reported that Baselga, whose name appears on hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and publications, had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.
Not only did the bombshell report put a spotlight on the muddy connections between the industry and academic research, it also raised criticisms of the financial reporting systems supposedly meant to uphold the standards of medical journals and professional societies.
Shortly after the report, Baselga resigned from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Baselga wasn't gone for long, though. In 2019, he took up the post leading AstraZeneca's cancer R&D.
The company noted in its Sunday release how Baselga was integral to a collaboration with the Japanese drugmaker Daiichi Sankyo that focused on developing and commercializing a medicine called Enhertu.
Enhertu pairs the active ingredient in Herceptin with a toxic payload designed to destroy tumor cells. In December 2019, less than a year after AstraZeneca and Daiichi linked up, the Food and Drug Administration approved Enhertu as a treatment for heavily pre-treated breast cancer.
Following that approval, the companies agreed to work together on another drug known as datopotamab deruxtecan. They announced this January that both drugs had shown encouraging results in patients with advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer.
AstraZeneca said Baselga also encouraged the company to explore "exciting new science" in areas like cell therapy and epigenetics.
"José built a world-class Oncology R&D team who will miss him dearly, just as all his colleagues will throughout our entire Company," AstraZeneca said.