2023 Association of American Physicians Elected Member: Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD
Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, is professor of medicine, surgery, and molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He serves as director of the Tumor Immunology Program at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC) and director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) Center at UCLA. His research has focused on the use of immunotherapy to treat melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. He has been instrumental in the clinical development of several agents approved by the FDA, including pembrolizumab (Keytruda), vemurafenib (Zelboraf), cobimetinib (Cotellic), dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and trametinib (Mekinist). Recent work includes laboratory and clinical translational research in adoptive cell transfer therapy with T-cell receptor engineered lymphocytes; examining the antitumor activity of PD-1-blocking antibodies; testing novel targeted therapies blocking oncogenic events in melanoma; and studying primary and acquired resistance to melanoma therapies. He is the immediate-past president of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), and has been a member of the AACR Board of Directors since 2016. He earned his medical degree from the University of Barcelona. He conducted his internship and residency in medical oncology at Hospital Vall d’Hebron, then held a fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at UCLA School of Medicine. He earned his PhD from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has been a member of the National Blue Ribbon Panel Working Group. He is a Fellow of the AACR Academy, and an elected member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Catalonia, the American Society of Clinical Investigation, and the National Academy of Medicine.
The Road to the The Association of American Physicians… In Conversation with Dr. Antoni Ribas
Dr. Ribas shares the experiences which have influenced his career in research and medicine, as well advice for the future leaders in medicine.
What events in your life led you to pursue a career and/or research in medicine?
I briefly started engineering, and realized I did not really get all that math and symbols… so I thought to find an easier thing to do. Studying medicine seemed easier, which was based on remembering a whole bunch of stuff. I also considered biology, but I reasoned that I could go into biology with a medical degree but it may be harder to do the opposite. Therefore, it left doors open. It turns out, at the end I do both medicine and biology.
What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome on this journey and what did they teach you?
I was in formal training for over 15 years between medical school, PhD thesis, medical residency, oncology fellowship and postdoctoral laboratory research. I felt I was going back to being the one who knew the least every time I went back and forth between clinical training and laboratory research. But at the end it made for a good base to which I could build a career as a physician-scientist, and keep incorporating new knowledge. Many years later, I feel I am still a student.
Which achievement or contribution are you most proud of?
When I started my clinic 20 years ago, patients with advanced melanoma had one in 20 chances of responding to anything; now, approximately half of my patients are deriving long term benefit with new drugs for melanoma.This remarkable advance has all been based on turning scientific knowledge into better treatments for patients. Improved understanding of what makes melanoma behave as a cancer and how it evades the immune system guided which clinical trials I decided to be involved in. Once we realized we were on the right track, with my research group we focused on getting patient samples and analyzing how the treatments worked or not, if they worked for a period of time and the the melanoma relapsed, what were the changes that allowed this to happen.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
My father, who was also a medical oncologist and had a keen interest in the underlying science, kept telling me that “the most important thing is to understand why things happen”. Understanding why patients respond or not to therapies provides the knowledge to overcome the limitations and keep advancing new treatments.
What would you want others reading this to know?
There is little “luck” involved in why a patient given a treatment will respond or not. I think we need to aspire to understand the underlying biology of why a particular treatment works in some and not others, model the problem and test what could work better in that context.