Ralph de Vere White, a beloved urologist and acclaimed researcher who led the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer to designation by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), steps down as its long-time director on June 29.
De Vere White, a distinguished professor of urology who was cancer center director for 20 years, will continue to serve in a research capacity part-time. Primo “Lucky” Lara, a medical oncologist who has been on the faculty at UC Davis since 1999, will serve as interim director during the national search for a permanent replacement.
“Ralph de Vere White has been a steadfast, inspirational and influential cancer center director,” said Julie Freischlag, UC Davis vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the school of medicine. “His creative leadership and commitment to team science paved the way for the health system’s growing collaborative basic and clinical research enterprise, efforts that directly benefit patients.”
De Vere White began his career at UC Davis in 1984 as chair of the Department of Urology. He was named cancer center director in 1996 after then director James Goodnight became chair of the Department of Surgery. De Vere White also served as chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology from 2008 to 2009.
As cancer center director, de Vere White championed the research collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, forged in 2000, which was a key part of the application to the National Cancer Institute for designation, achieved in 2002.
The cancer center’s research programs also include a unique partnership with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where companion animals are treated for cancers in research that informs the development of new treatments for human disease, and with the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is building new tools to more precisely diagnose and treat cancer.
During his tenure, cancer center research funding grew from $31 million in 2000 to more than $102 million in 2016. The cancer center now has six scientific research programs, nine shared resources to support cancer research and five research initiatives involving 304 scientists. Forty percent of the center’s scientific members are not part of the UC Davis School of Medicine, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the cancer center’s multi-disciplinary scientific programs.
De Vere White was instrumental in building the cancer center’s basic science program, first with the recruitment of renowned molecular and cell biologist Hsing-Jien Kung in 1998 and human genomics researcher John McPherson, who took the post in 2015. De Vere White also forged partnerships with Jackson Laboratories, an NCI-designated research center that allows researchers to discover new treatments using mouse models of human cancers, and with Foundation Medicine, which provides genomic profiles of individual patient tumors.
He also championed the growth of the cancer health disparities program, which aims to reduce the burden of cancer in different populations that suffer disproportionately from the disease because of lack of access to cancer-preventive vaccines and routine screenings, among other obstacles.
De Vere White’s tenure also included the build-out of a 46,000-square-foot expansion of the cancer center in 2012, accomplished, in part, through generous donations from the community, including from his own, grateful patients. The expansion added much needed adult clinic areas, but also included space for the pediatric clinic and infusion center. By joining the pediatric programs under the same roof with the adult clinics, de Vere White hoped to ease the transition of pediatric patients into young adulthood when they are more apt to experience the late effects from early cancer treatment.
An internationally renowned prostate and bladder cancer researcher, de Vere White will continue his research efforts after stepping down as cancer center director. Specifically, he intends to continue work on reducing bladder cancer mortality through use of mouse models of the disease that can grow human tumors for testing potentially effective treatments.
“I am very grateful to UC Davis for having afforded me the opportunity to put together a team that led a young cancer center to become one of the country’s best,” said de Vere White. “I am proud to leave an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center, and know that my successor, together with the world’s best senior leadership team, will carry the center forward, increasing its impact to better the lives of our patients. After all, they are why we exist.”
Primo “Lucky” Lara, is professor and associate director for translational research at the cancer center. His principal research and clinical interests revolve around developmental therapeutics in lung, prostate and bladder cancer. He serves as principal investigator of several national clinical trials, research and training grants, chairs two NCI committees and SWOG’s professional review committee, and is an active volunteer with the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“While it’s impossible to match Ralph’s energy and exuberance,” Lara said, “our intent is to build on his vision and the momentum he’s created here at the cancer center.”