Dr. Steven Wong, a Renowned Breakthrough Cancer Researcher with a Heart of Gold

Dr. Steven Wong working with live cancer cells
Dr. Steven Wong working with live cancer cells

The miraculous discovery of the most evolved cancer drug: HerceptinScreen Shot 2015-02-15 at 12.38.31 AM

By Adrienne Papp


Every October, millions of people around the world commit to a global fashion anomaly by accessorizing in bright shades of pink. You see it everywhere, in advertising, on the football field where NFL players wear pink gloves and shoelaces and in retail stores where the pink ribbon adorns clothing and consumer goods, the universal symbol of breast cancer awareness. There is hardly any day goes by when we do not see cars one after another driving by with a pink ribbon sticker on the window. The length of this article limits me to talk more about the statistics just in California, which states that out of every two person will get cancer and every fourth will die from it.

Not a surprise then that it’s become a highly popular social movement, and people have become more and more aware of the scourge of breast cancer, a form of the disease that affects both men (lesser known to the general public) and women.

Dr. Wong at UCLA Research Lab
Dr. Wong at UCLA Research Lab

I had the honor to interview Dr. Steven Wong about his own journey into cancer research and the revolutionary findings under his leadership. The topic had hit home hard for me, yet has given birth to a new way of keeping the public informed about the latest in cancer research through access to information that will give rise to even more awareness in a creative, yet simple, up to date way. Inspired by Atlantic Publicity, our Youthful and Ageless™  project is in the making and will include studies, research materials, interviews, discoveries presented at nationwide conferences, articles by recognized researchers in the field, and numerous interviews with Dr. Wong, who truly cares about finding the cure, but perhaps even more importantly, about his patients personally.

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There are genius minds in research labs, who love their work, but not everyone has the personality to care for patients with this most devastating and worst disease of our time. Dr. Steven Wong has a heart of gold and patiently cares for each of his patients individually when he is not in the lab full time working to find a cure. That personal care alone is priceless in our hectic and sometimes chaotic society. He takes each case close to his heart and understands all the human elements arising when this most feared “c” word is first heard. He walks his patients through generally unknown information in great details each step of the way and explains your particular case, which is unique to everyone, with “surgical” precision adding to it what science knows at any given point in time.

Not only I am very proud and grateful to be associated with one of the most brilliant minds in this field pioneering some of the breakthrough research that resulted in the development of the drug Herceptin, which is now the most effective tool being used to combat the disease, researched at UCLA, but Dr. Wong has also become a caring and loyal friend. I personally consider these qualities the most important ones in a human life. Not just a purpose driven life, but a life lived with humble dignity and ultimately lived for others. Albert Einstein said: “ Only a life lived for others is worth living.” Dr. Steven Wong is one of our heroes having been a research associate at UCLA’s Dennis Slamon’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA in Los Angeles. ( Dr. Wong having been a team member at UCLA’s research center directed by Dr. Slamon, which ultimately lead to a world-wide recognition, is featured as a recognized UCLA research associate and more.)
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Dr. Wong was part of a pioneering effort to provide a powerful countermeasure against breast cancer, developing the drug now known as Herceptin and saving the lives of millions of people. For 12 years, Dr. Slamon, Dr. Steven Wong and their colleagues, conducted the exhaustive laboratory and clinical research that led to the development of Herceptin, which targets a specific acquired  genetic alteration in the cells found in about 25 percent of breast cancer patients.


In the late 1970s, Dr. Slamon  had become frustrated watching chemotherapy and radiation help some breast-cancer patients while not helping but in fact harming others. Among the most significant statistics then was that nearly one in four women—45,000 in the U.S. and 250,000 worldwide annually—had tumors that tested positive for the Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 (HER-2). The presence of HER-2 often meant recurrence or death just two or three years after receiving the best available therapies.


Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 10.53.55 PMAfter getting a B.S. in chemistry at UCLA in 1983, Dr. Steven Wong joined Dr. Slamon’s research team in 1985. “He was very involved in the examination of genes that were associated with cancer, what we call “onco” genes,” Wong says. “That was the research that, after many years, led to the development of Herceptin.”


The research was so groundbreaking that it gained spotlight  for the project, including a story that ran on NBC’s EXTRA, calling it “4 key steps to fighting cancer, featuring two leading oncologists at UCLA, Dr. Michael Yeh and Dr. Steven Wong.”


Dr. Steven Wong on Television, Channel Extra, about 4 Key steps to fighting cancer. 

Dr. Wong Interviewed by EXTRA Photo Credit: EXTRA
Dr. Wong Interviewed by EXTRA
Photo Credit: EXTRA

Several large breast cancer  centers and hospitals around the country to examine tumor samples were contacted by Dr. Slamon.

Dr. Slamon met with potential collaborators,  eventually finding research collaborators at the University of Texas in San Antonio for instance.  Although Dr. Wong did not need to travel,  he did receive  many special packages with frozen tumors mostly from Texas initially,  but later Canada and Europe.

As the research continued there was a hope that “might lead to a new therapy, and possibly closer to a cure, ” and as so Dr. Wong would compare different samples received as the result of the discovery in search of the above.  Through endless hours of detective work, essentially as gene profilers, Dr. Steven Wong and the research team at UCLA were able to establish the role HER-2 plays in the development of a highly aggressive form of  breast cancer.   ” We received some initial 300 breast cancer specimens from the University of Texas, San Antonio Breast Cancer center in batches consistently  finding about 25% with this genetic amplification that when correlated to clinical behavior taught us about this highly aggressive form of breast cancer forming the basis of our study,” Dr. Wong says.

Dr. Dennis Slamon, discovered cancer drug, Herceptin
Dr. Dennis Slamon, discovered cancer drug, Herceptin

Experiments with humanized mouse-antibodies eventually revealed a combination that blocked the rogue protein, halting HER-2–positive breast cancer in its tracks. That antibody, ultimately named Herceptin, significantly improved disease-free survival rates when combined with chemotherapy. But the journey from hunch to treatment took 12 exhaustive years, and the threats of funding cuts by Genentech, which owned the research, made Herceptin, the success of the research, uncertain, despite the significance of the results that Dr. Wong and the research team had come up with.

Thankfully the research team found a couple of angels in anticancer activist Lilly Tartikoff and Lisa C. Paulson of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. They were passionate about finding a cure for cancer in its many insidious forms and raised tens of millions for the work that Dr. Slamon, Dr. Wong and the research staff were working on. With sufficient financial resources finally available, Dr. Slamon, Dr. Wong and the team were able to use herceptin as the first molecularly targeted therapies in all stages of her2 positive breast cancer, from early stage to advanced stage, the first treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of this highly aggressive form of breast cancer

Dr. Dennis Slamon and Harry Conick Jr. discuss Herceptin during shooting the film: "Living Proof "
Dr. Dennis Slamon and Harry Conick Jr. discuss Herceptin during shooting the film: “Living Proof “

“Our research was also published as the lead article in a premier research journal, “Science,” Dr. Wong says. “That made a huge impact for the program. That really put us on the map.”

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE Steven G. Wong, MD Division of Hematology:Oncology Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, UCLA Medical Center

With the use of Herceptin, HER-2–positive breast-cancer patients went from having among the worst outcomes to having among the best— in some cases providing a cure “when a cure was thought not possible.  Herceptin works synergistically with other chemotherapy treatments, increasing disease-free survival time by 50 percent.

The Blockbuster True Story about the discovery of Herceptin by Dr. Slamon and team, Dr. Wong
The Lifetime True Story about the discovery of Herceptin by Dr. Slamon and team, Dr. Wong

Herceptin is now a drug that generates a billion dollars a year in revenue for Genentech and has received recent FDA approval in HER2 positive advanced gastric cancer also shows promise in treating HER-2–amplified gastric cancer, with improved prognosis in approximately 20 percent of all cases. The process of identifying the target and validating it in the laboratory has also worked for other major malignancies, research has found. UCLA researchers have been developing models based on various forms of cancer and the results are promising.

Angie Harmon, The Living Proof, with Adrienne Papp
Angie Harmon, The Living Proof, with Adrienne Papp

The story of Dr. Slamon, Dr. Wong and the development of Herceptin is also so moving and dramatic that a book and Lifetime network movie were created so that their story could be told to a wide audience. Based on the story of their research and discovery, “Living Proof” (2008) follows cancer researcher Dr. Dennis Slamon (played by Harry Connick Jr.) and anti-cancer activist and fundraiser Lilly Tartikoff (played by Angie Harmon) Dr. Steven Wong and the UCLA research team in their tireless efforts to obtain FDA approval for Herceptin. Convinced this experimental medication is the key to treating the deadly disease, UCLA’s team must contend with skeptical backers, critically ill patients and the complicated clinical trial process to prove the drug can save lives. The story unfolds in many different ways.

There is the constant battle Dr. Slamon and Dr. Wong face to keep their research going. We also meet the various women who have breast cancer and become part of the trial, providing a wonderful sense of camaraderie between the women as they go through treatment. You end up very connected to them and also very invested in their well-being. And, as an audience, we become more and more connected with Dr. Slamon, feeling his frustration and anger when they can’t get funding or approval and we feel for the various women who the story focuses on – Bernadette Peters as Barbara, Regina King as Ellie and Tammy Blanchard as Nicole.

The 16the Annual Entertainment Industry Foundation Revlon Run/Walk For Women Times Square, NYC May 4, 2013, Photos by Sonia Moskowitz, Globe Photos Inc 2013 Alan Ennis, Lilly Tartikoff, Dr. Dennis Slamon, Lisa Paulsen
The 16the Annual Entertainment Industry Foundation Revlon Run/Walk For Women Times Square, NYC May 4, 2013, Photos by Sonia Moskowitz, Globe Photos Inc 2013 Alan Ennis, Lilly Tartikoff, Dr. Dennis Slamon, Lisa Paulsen

Living Proof” is a compelling movie that highlights the hard work and dedication of Dr. Slamon, Dr. Wong and the UCLA research team, whose work in developing Herceptin have saved millions of lives. Since the development and approval of Herceptin, there are now 3 additional HER2 directed therapies (Tykerb, Perjeta, Kadcyla) approved for treatment of HER2 positive breast cancer, all demonstrated to improve outcome of patents with this deadly disease.

The power and emotion of the story and some excellent and outstanding  performances make it well worth watching, especially since we have come to know Dr. Steven Wong up close and personal, and have heard about the tedious work, patience, dedication and persistence that went into one of the greatest discoveries of our century. The movie closes with a touching scene as thousands of women stand up showing us the value of human victory in saving millions of lives!

“There’s something wonderfully rewarding in being part of an effort that does make a difference.” ?– Thomas Jefferson

Dr. Steven Wongs office can be reached at 310-824-4133 for appointments!

Adrienne Papp
Adrienne Papp

About the Author of This Article: Dame Adrienne Papp is a recognized journalist, economist and feature writer who has written for many publications including Savoir; The Westside Today Publications ; such as Beverly Hills 90210; Malibu Beach; Santa Monica Sun; The Beverly Hills Times; Brentwood News; Bel-Air View ; Celebrity Society ; Celeb Staff It Magazine Chic Today LA2DAY West Side Today among many others. She is the President and CEO of Los Angeles / New York-based publicity company, Atlantic Publicity and publishing house, Atlantic Publisher. Adrienne writes about world trends, Quantum Physics, entertainment and interviews celebrities, world leaders, inventors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs. She also owns Atlantic United Films that produces and finances true stories made for theatrical release or the silver screen. Spotlight News Magazine is owned by Atlantic United, IncAdrienne Papp is a member of the International Press Academy.


Adrienne Papp

Adrienne Papp

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