Alum's work at FDA in approving cancer drugs touches many people
Every year, medical researchers in the United States develop new cancer drugs and biologics that help thousands of patients survive a cancer diagnosis by treating the more than 100 types of cancer.
For more than 20 years, UC Davis School of Medicine alumnus Robert Lee Justice has played a crucial role at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure that drugs and biologics are safe and effective.
"I'm passionate about cancer drug development because the existing therapies for cancer patients are modestly effective at best – that's the main reason I joined the FDA," he says. "I thought here I could make an impact in expediting the development of new cancer drugs so I could help many patients across the country."
In recent years, some marked success is being achieved, according to the 1975 UC Davis alum, who is currently director of the Division of Drug Oncology Products in the Office of Oncology Drug Products in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the FDA.
"There are new classes of drugs being developed that are more targeted to specific cancers and have somewhat less toxicity and more efficacy than the therapies we've previously approved."
The division Justice heads consists of approximately 50 oncologists, preclinical pharmacologists/ toxicologists and project managers who are responsible for regulating clinical research with investigational cancer drugs, recommending approval or non-approval of new drug applications for cancer drugs and approval or non-approval of applications for new indications for cancer drugs.
Justice joined the FDA in 1985 as a medical officer evaluating new cancer drugs. He's also served as the deputy director in the Division of Biologic Oncology Products and director of the Division of Gastrointestinal and Coagulation Drug Projects. Prior to joining the FDA, he worked as an assistant professor of hematology and oncology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Amarillo, Texas.
His education at the UC Davis School of Medicine was excellent, Justice recalls. He remembers the hematology/oncology faculty the best, as he was "impressed by their compassion and dedication to helping patients with malignancies."
He selected internal medicine for his residency at the University of Hawaii and later became a basic research fellow in cancer immunology at the FDA's former Bureau of Biologics at the National Institutes of Health. At the time, monoclonal antibodies were first being investigated as possible treatments for cancer.
Realizing he would also need fellowship training in medical oncology so he could develop new cancer treatments, he completed a two-year fellowship as a clinical associate in medical oncology at the Cancer Center of Hawaii in Honolulu.
While he had hoped to develop a clinical research program in monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer while at Texas Tech, Justice says the resources required to develop a new therapy were too great for most medical schools, especially for a new investigator without a track record. His keen interest in clinical research and the development of new cancer therapeutics drew him to the FDA.
His years at UC Davis provided the solid basic science and clinical background that prepared him for all aspects of his career, Justice says.
"I feel fortunate to have attended UC Davis as I received a high quality medical education and also had great friends and classmates. Although at times I miss patient care, I realize what I do has a major impact on the public health of patients with cancer, so that gives me great satisfaction."