Dr. Owen Witte, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, has spent the better part of his life trying to understand and find therapies for one of the most baffling and devastating diseases: cancer. On Nov. 8, at 3 p.m., he will deliver the 103rd Faculty Research Lecture at Schoenberg Auditorium. Titled "A Delicate Balance: Stem Cells, Cancer and the Immune Response," the lecture is open to the entire campus community and will highlight the tremendous scientific advances in cancer research. Witte talked to UCLA Newsroom Staff Writer Ajay Singh about that research and his remarkable career.

Tell us a bit about stem cells and your research.

All of the tissues in our body derive from specific cells called stem cells. Much of my work has been involved with understanding how cancer is caused how stem cells turn from normal to abnormal development and produce cancer.

What has been the influence of new technologies on cancer research?

We're currently using technologies that are just spectacular for seeing inside the bodies of living animals or people. One of them is called positron emission tomography, which was invented by my colleague Mike Phelps, chair of pharmacology. We're using it to see how cancer cells respond when treated with new kinds of drugs or therapies.

How close are we to a cure for cancer?

In some cancers we may have actually achieved, if not a cure, a very effective therapy.

What's your career path been like?

I started as a medical student at Stanford in the early 1970s and then moved to a fellowship and training program with the Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, who was then at M.I.T. I came to UCLA in 1980 and have been on the faculty ever since.

What's your role as director?

It's really one of coordinating the tremendous talent we have and securing outside funding resources to do the work we want to do.

What do you find most exasperating about the stem cells debate?

What I find most illogical about the debate is that material that is currently available in fertility clinics, which will never be used to produce an embryo, is going to be thrown away. We could intelligently use that in our research.

The British are legally permitted to conduct research on stem cell embryos. Does this give them an edge over the United States?

In a number of countries, including Britain, Singapore and Australia, the regulations governing embryonic stem cell research are more in tune with what's logical and appropriate for the scientific community. I hope our policies change on the national level as well as become more supportive at the state level.

What tips would you give to the general public to avoid cancer?

Stay out of the sun, don't smoke, don't become overweight, think about your genetic predisposition, based on your family history, and get checked early and often for those cancers for which there are good, early diagnostic tests.

Do you have a personal stake in stem cell research?

I definitely have a personal stake in all forms of biomedical research.

What's the gist of your lecture?

I hope to describe not just the results we've obtained but, more importantly, the questions we're trying to answer to help people understand that the work we do at UCLA really does reach out to the greater world in which we all live. The concept of people working in the ivory tower, disassociated from society, is just plain wrong. What we're doing has an impact and is important, and I want to carry that message.

Media Contact: 

Tiare Dunlap
(310) 206-8367
tdunlap@mednet.ucla.edu