Primo Nery Lara, Jr. has been named director of the National Cancer Institute-designated UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, leading a team of more than 300 scientists with an estimated $90 million in annual research funding and a clinical enterprise that serves more than 10,000 adult and pediatric patients throughout the region every year.
“Dr. Lara is well-respected among his peers and his advice is sought by many,” said UC Davis School of Medicine Interim Dean Lars Berglund. “He is a resourceful and experienced leader, and I know he will build upon the strong foundation already in place at the Comprehensive Cancer Center to bring it to new heights and continued national prominence. With instrumental institutional support from both UC Davis Health and UC Davis, he is well-positioned to do so.”
Lara’s move into the director’s role comes with unprecedented commitment and support from the university and health system, with enhanced resources to meet the National Cancer Institute’s more rigorous requirements and the growing clinical needs for advanced cancer care in the region. A reimagined leadership and organizational structure will enable the cancer center to more nimbly embark on innovative basic, translational and clinical cancer research – the foundation for the nation’s leading NCI-designated cancer centers.
Lara, 52, replaces Ralph de Vere White, who retired in 2016. As director, Lara will hold the Codman-Radke Chair in Cancer Research and serve as executive associate dean for cancer programs. Lara was selected for the position after a national search; he has served as acting director since July 2016.
UC Davis Health is a nationally-ranked leader in health care research and health care delivery. UC Davis is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center that cares for patients throughout the Central Valley of California, a diverse region of more than 5 million people. With a unique dual role as both an academic medical center for research and delivering excellent care for the community, UC Davis offers a city-wide clinical trials program that enables every eligible cancer patient access to early-phase investigational therapies, regardless of their treating hospital affiliation.
Known to most as “Lucky” Lara, the new director began his career at UC Davis as a hematology-oncology fellow specializing in cancers of the lung, prostate and bladder. He was invited to join the faculty in 1999. A strong advocate for his patients, Lara works tirelessly to ensure that each is provided comprehensive care and access to leading-edge therapies.
Lara is an accomplished scientist, with principal research interests in the field of developmental therapeutics and in cancer clinical trials development. He has served as the cancer center’s associate director for translational research, which takes novel therapies from the laboratory into the clinic to benefit patients, since 2008. Lara has chaired or co-chaired many trials from phase I to III and has authored or contributed to more than 200 peer-reviewed scholarly papers, most of which describe research into novel cancer therapies.
His leadership in clinical research at the cancer center extends to the broader cancer research community where he enjoys a national and international reputation. In March, Lara was named incoming deputy chair of SWOG, a leading international cancer research organization, where he will also oversee the National Clinical Trials Network portfolio of treatment trials.
Lara is active in medical education and training, serving as principal investigator of the NCI-funded K12 Paul Calabresi Clinical Oncology Training Grant, which trains junior faculty scholars to be independent, patient-oriented cancer researchers. He also chaired the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Continuing Medical Education Subcommittee in 2012-2013 and was Education Committee chair of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer from 2011-2013.
UC Davis Health is advancing health care by leading groundbreaking research, fostering innovative education, providing excellent patient care, and creating dynamic and productive partnerships with the community. As cancer center director, Lara will be responsible for ensuring the center meets its strategic planning goals and aligning those with the broader university goals. Among them will be to grow the clinical program throughout the region and beyond.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to leverage the unique scientific expertise in the schools, laboratories and academic departments throughout UC Davis,” Lara said. “Our job moving forward is to make sure that our collaborations result in transformative cancer research and care for each of our patients.”
Among Lara’s key priorities are building upon the multi-disciplinary programs and projects across UC Davis to develop novel approaches to diagnose, monitor and treat cancer. These include:
- Comparative oncology, which teams medical, radiation, and surgical oncologists at the cancer center with veterinary oncologists to test novel therapies or biomarkers in canine cancer patients that can be more rapidly translated into human clinical trials. One study, for example, explores integrating immunotherapy with radiation therapy for dogs with cancer – which led to clinical research now underway at the cancer center in human patients.
- Biomedical engineering, to design and build new tools to better diagnose, track and treat cancer. EXPLORER, for example, will be the world’s first total-body PET scanner, capable of imaging the entire body with high resolution, while using less radiation and potentially transforming the way cancer treatments can be delivered and evaluated in the clinic.
- Nanotheranostics, a field of study that integrates imaging and therapy in a single platform, allowing scientists to develop drugs that specifically target cancer cells and monitor how drugs are released and distributed in the body. Nanotheranostics will allow providers to predict whether a drug reaches its tumor target and may be more effective than standard untargeted therapies.
Lara completed his medical residency at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and received his Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of the Philippines. The first Filipino-American to lead an NCI-designated cancer center, Lara emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 from Manila; he is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is one of eight children raised by a single mother, all of whom now live in Northern California. He is married to Elizabeth Lara and has two sons, Joshua and Matthew, both undergraduates at Stanford University. The family lives in Davis, Calif.
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Jackson Laboratory (JAX West), whose scientific partnerships advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis collaborates with a number of hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California regions to offer the latest cancer care. Its community-based outreach and education programs address disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations. For more information, visit cancer.ucdavis.edu.