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When Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, received his medical degree in 1980 from the Universidad de Guayaquil in Ecuador, he decided to head to the United States for further specialty training for 2 main reasons. First, the United States provided the type of training he was most interested in, which at the time was cardiology. Second, he adds jokingly, “My Dad was the dean of the medical school where I graduated, and the only way to be better than him was to get out of there.”

Dr. Arteaga eventually became intrigued by the idea of working in oncology. After his internal medicine residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he went on to a fellowship in medical oncology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “I was going to go back to my country, but during my training some colleagues suggested I should stay here,” he says. “I thought that was nuts, but I soon realized that I had become too overspecialized to go back. Some countries, like mine, have more fundamental health care needs than laboratory-based translational research in cancer.”

As a result, Dr. Arteaga, now a professor of medicine and cancer biology, has carved out a career in cancer research that has led him to become the associate director for clinical research and director of the breast cancer program at the Vanderbilt–Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Among his research interests are oncogene signaling and molecular therapeutics in breast cancer, with an emphasis on targeted therapies, mechanisms of drug resistance, translational research, and investigator-initiated clinical trials.

This past March, Dr. Arteaga was chosen as president-elect of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) for 2013–2014 by the organization's 34,000-plus membership. He assumed that position in April at the organization–s annual meeting in Washington, DC, and will become the AACR president at next year's meeting in April 2014. In that role, he will work with AACR members and the board of directors to accomplish the organization's multipronged mission of preventing and curing cancer through research, education, communication, and collaboration.

Contributions

  1. Top of page
  2. Contributions
  3. Importance of Research Funding
  4. Commitments

Dr. Arteaga is looking forward to taking the helm of “the largest cancer research organization on the planet.” Long involved with the AACR, Dr. Arteaga has served as a member of its board of directors, chair of its special conferences committee, a member of the annual meeting program committee, and cochairperson of several special research conferences, as well as an editorial board member of the AACR journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. He also is deputy editor of the organization's Clinical Cancer Research journal, has served as cochair of the annual CTRC (Cancer Therapy and Research Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio)-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, and is a principal investigator of the Stand Up To Cancer Dream Team, “Targeting the P13K Pathway in Women's Cancers.”

“Dr. Arteaga's contributions to breast cancer research have had a major impact on the lives of breast cancer patients,” Margaret Foti, PhD, MD, chief executive officer of the AACR, stated in a Vanderbilt-issued news release. “He shares in the AACR's mission to prevent and cure cancer, and we know that he will lead the association with much vigor and commitment to ensure that we continue to accelerate progress against this insidious disease.”

Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, says that Dr. Arteaga will bring extensive expertise to the position and promote “innovative cancer research and collaboration from bench to community.” She adds that it is this mixture that really ends up changing the face of oncology. “I think he leads by example, with tremendous energy and creativity and passion to make a difference,” she says. He also understands and appreciates the importance of all aspects of research, from basic science to clinical trials to prevention and early detection, Dr. Pietenpol adds.

Importance of Research Funding

  1. Top of page
  2. Contributions
  3. Importance of Research Funding
  4. Commitments

Although he has yet to finalize his platform as president, Dr. Arteaga suspects it will involve a focus on laboratorybased translational/clinical research as well as funding for multidisciplinary research groups that harness the efforts of basic scientists, clinical investigators, and “everyone in the middle.”

“I'm not sure we've done a great job as academics and drug developers of communicating the importance of cancer research to the public, and that includes our politicians,” Dr. Arteaga says. “I suspect many of them may not fully grasp the importance of open-ended research in cancer.” The AACR plays a significant role in that effort, and he hopes to continue that mission as president.

Another major area Dr. Arteaga considers a problem is the “deficiency” of younger talent coming into cancer research. “At a time when technology is exploding, and when we're discovering a lot of novel features and potential vulnerabilities in human cancers, in most cases we don't know what they mean because we don't have enough people waking up and thinking about these discoveries,” he says. “It could be the perception that a career in academic oncology is either too hard or not fun or not well compensated anymore and/or that we're not doing a good job as role models.”

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Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that investment in cancer research will ultimately improve and that discoveries will continue to be made. He also expects to see continuous declines in mortality as well as improvements in the quality of life of patients with chronic cancers. He concedes that drug companies are being more selective about the trials they undertake and the drugs they promote but adds, “Maybe that forces all of us to select cancer targets, drugs, and trials better and, in the end, this may lead to faster approvals of new anticancer agents.”

With investigators and funds declining, “you always have to wonder what we could have done with more funding,” Dr. Arteaga says. However, he adds, “Still the funding isn't zero, and I'm fortunate to work at one of the top cancer centers in the country where many of my colleagues are still being funded. But we have to do better—there is no question about that.”

Responding to complaints by some critics that personalized medicine has failed to live up to its initial promise, he says, “I don't think those comments are warranted. Cancer is a formidable enemy, and it's much smarter than you or I. It's an experiment of evolution, and it's not easy to get rid of evolution. To expect single, targeted therapies to work immediately and universally is disingenuous.”

He points to trastuzumab and other antihuman epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) drugs for patients with HER2-positive breast cancers, crizotinib in patients with anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK)-positive lung cancer, vemurafenib in patients with BRAF-mutant melanoma, and others as therapies that have already delivered and continue to show promise. “It's not fair to say that cancer-targeted therapies aren't working,” he says. “They won't work for everyone because cancers are different, and there are targets for which we don't yet have a drug or we haven't appropriately tested against its cancer target,” he says. “Also, we have to figure out which combinations work best, but to say targeted therapies haven't worked is, to me, lazy at best.”

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Dr. Arteaga's research interests include oncogene signaling and molecular therapeutics in breast cancer with an emphasis on targeted therapies as well as the role of presurgical and neoadjuvant trials in discovering molecular biomarkers that inform selection in clinical trials and mechanisms of drug resistance in patients with breast cancer. He and others have demonstrated the role of aberrant activation of the phosphatidylinositide 3-kinases (P13K) pathway in conferring escape from antiestrogens and the ability of inhibitors of HER2 and P13K to reverse resistance to antiestrogen therapy in human breast cancer. These are examples in which at least 2 targeted therapies in combination were required to impact the cancer, he says.

“By rebiopsying tumors in real time, we're finding interesting mechanisms of resistance,” he says. “Tumors aren't static, and the ones that don't die change into something else. It's exciting that we have the tools to interrogate how they're changing. These tools are getting better and may allow us to outsmart increasing numbers of cancers in the immediate future.”

Commitments

  1. Top of page
  2. Contributions
  3. Importance of Research Funding
  4. Commitments

Dr. Arteaga also was recently named to head 2 newly created cancer research initiatives at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. He was named founding director of the Center for Cancer Targeted Therapies and director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Research Network. The former will focus on integrating early-stage clinical trials in patients with breast cancer with personalized medicine and imaging sciences. The latter is an effort to create a regional cancer research consortium between Vanderbilt investigators and affiliate partners in Tennessee and surrounding states, which as a region has the highest cancer death rate in the nation.

Despite his many commitments, Dr. Arteaga manages to keep busy outside of the office as well. He has 4 children, aged 18 years to 23 years. At least 2 of them are committed to medical school. An avid reader of history as well as a travel enthusiast, he is looking forward to traveling more with his wife, “who has been raising the kids forever,” he says with a laugh.