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José Baselga, pioneer in breast cancer treatment, dies at 61

José Baselga in New York City in 2015. (Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

José Baselga, a Spanish oncologist who married clinical practice and laboratory research, helping develop Herceptin and other drugs that have been credited with extending or saving the lives of millions of women with breast cancer, died March 21 at his home in the Cerdanya region of Spain. He was 61.

The cause was sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative disorder of the brain, according to his family. Dr. Baselga also maintained a residence in New York City.

A son and grandson of physicians, Dr. Baselga devoted his professional life to improving breast cancer treatment through the pursuit of novel therapies, the provision of care custom-designed for a patient’s individual needs and the cultivation of younger oncologists who would carry that work forward.

“He once showed me a snapshot of himself as a young man in Spain in a corrida with a bull,” one of his patients, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, wrote in an email. “He was just in streetclothes. He said to me, that bull, that is cancer, I am going to defeat it.”

Dr. Baselga’s clinical research centered on the development of drugs targeted to specific genetic mutations and the molecular biology of particular tumors, a burgeoning field of research that advanced cancer treatment beyond the more generalized forms of chemotherapy that were once the standard of care. His work on drugs such as Herceptin, Perjeta and everolimus made him one of the “most important clinical researchers in the world,” Javier Cortes, a longtime collaborator and director of the International Breast Cancer Center in Barcelona, said in an interview.

Dr. Baselga held numerous appointments over his career that placed him at the forefront of international cancer research. At Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in his native Barcelona, he founded what is now one of the major oncology institutes of Europe. He then served for two years as chief of hematology oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston before being appointed chief medical officer and physician in chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 2012.

Dr. Baselga resigned from Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2018 after the New York Times and ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization, published a report alleging that he had failed to properly disclose his financial ties to drug and health-care companies whose research he addressed in academic articles. The next year, he joined the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca as chief of research and development in oncology.

Hope Rugo, director of breast oncology and clinical trials education at the cancer center of the University of California at San Francisco, described Dr. Baselga in an interview as a “translational oncologist” who labored to apply the most promising laboratory findings to the clinic.

He was perhaps best known for his participation in the development of Herceptin, a drug used to treat patients with an aggressive form of breast cancer in which tumors display an abnormally high level of the growth-promoting protein HER2. Herceptin binds with and blocks the protein, slowing or stopping the growth of the tumor.

(In 2019, three scientists — H. Michael Shepard of the biotechnology company Genentech, Dennis J. Slamon of the University of California at Los Angeles and Axel Ullrich of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany — shared a Lasker award for their work on Herceptin, which is also used to treat stomach cancer.)

Like Herceptin, Perjeta is used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer and delivered a “dramatic improvement” in prognosis, Cortes said. Everolimus is used in combination with endocrine therapy to treat other forms of breast cancer and on its own to treat kidney cancer.

The report by the Times and ProPublica examined what it described as Dr. Baselga’s failure to follow professional disclosure rules in his academic publications and at conferences, as well as broader questions of conflicts of interest and disclosure standards in medical research.

In one instance, Dr. Baselga put what the reporters described as a “positive spin” on what other researchers considered lackluster results of clinical trials sponsored by Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company from which he had received more than $3 million in consulting fees and for his share of a company it had bought.

Mr. Baselga said that any omission of financial disclosures was unintentional and noted that many of his corporate relationships were publicly known.

“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 in a statement at the time. “While I have been inconsistent with disclosures and acknowledge that fact, that is a far cry from compromising my responsibilities as a physician, as a scientist and as a clinical leader.”

Shortly after the report was published, Dr. Baselga resigned from Memorial Sloan Kettering. He later resigned as one of the editors in chief of the journal Cancer Discovery, published by the American Association for Cancer Research, which he had earlier led as president.

He was hired the next year by AstraZeneca, which credited him with shepherding a collaboration with the Japanese firm Daiichi Sankyo on the development of cancer drugs including Enhertu. AstraZeneca also credited him with leading work in antibody drug conjugates — an ultra-targeted form of chemotherapy that Cortes compared to a molecular Trojan horse — as well as cell therapy and epigenetics.

José Baselga Torres was born in Barcelona on July 3, 1959. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a physician who treated miners, factory workers and other laborers.

Dr. Baselga received a medical degree in 1982 and a doctoral degree in 1992, both from the University of Barcelona, and completed a fellowship in oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering. He taught over the years at institutions including Harvard Medical School and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Silvia Garriga of Manhattan; four children, Marc Baselga of San Francisco, Clara Baselga-Garriga and Pepe Baselga-Garriga, both of Manhattan, and Alex Baselga-Garriga of Brunswick, Maine; his mother, Esther Torres of Barcelona; two sisters; and a brother.

Cortes recalled that the last time he saw Dr. Baselga in person, Dr. Baselga offered advice. “Whatever you do in the future, think only of the good of the patients,” he said. “In the end that is what you’ll take when you die.”

For Dr. Baselga, one of them was Graham, whom he first treated for breast cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2012. She wrote in her email: “Anyone who has been diagnosed knows the feeling that they have been given a death sentence. José made you feel you had been given a new life, a new way to grasp what life was, a new way to be alive.” An encounter with him, she wrote, was like a “a ferocious angelic visitation.”

“He gently dusted off your soul,” she observed, “and handed it back to you awake.”

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