In junior high, Febbo’s curiosity shifted from veterinary to human medicine, and he hasn’t looked back. “I wanted to be a vet first, but I figured out that Dr. Doolittle really couldn’t talk to animals, and I wanted to talk to my patients,” jokes Febbo.
Today, as a prostate cancer researcher and physician at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the talk of Febbo and his team is how to fight prostate cancer.
Febbo, 45, has been an associate professor of hematology/oncology at UCSF since 2010. He and his team delve deeply into the molecular mechanisms that drive aggressive and advanced prostate cancers to recur and/or resist existing treatments. They hope to learn how to short-circuit the cancer cells’ ability to survive the interventions and medications used to fight them.
Febbo spends most of his time leading research projects in his laboratory at the cancer center. He also leads the center’s Prostate Cancer Program and is principal investigator of the Translational Research Program for the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology. The rest of the time he sees patients, most of them men with prostate cancer who are participating in clinical trials of new treatments.
“I can use the therapies and treatments we have to minimize the effect prostate cancer has on patients’ lives,” Febbo says. “And while I can’t cure the men whose disease has spread beyond the prostate, I can have a significant impact on improving the quality and duration of their lives. I find that very meaningful.”
Febbo is confident that the research he and others in the field are conducting will eventually establish treatments that can turn prostate cancer into a chronic but manageable disease, like diabetes or hypertension.
As a UCSF medical student, Febbo developed a strong interest in pathology — studying human tissue samples, including cancerous tissue — to learn more about diseases. There were also personal reasons that he took on this formidable adversary: The deaths of a close college friend from brain cancer and of his maternal grandmother from leukemia.
“Cancer became the enemy,” Febbo says.
After medical school, he completed a medical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and followed that with a fellowship in oncology at Boston’s Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
It was at Dana-Farber that a mentor, Phillip Kantoff, inspired Febbo to sharpen his focus to prostate cancer.
At the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research he also began working with microarrays. It’s one of the latest techniques for examining cancer cells for genetic clues that might help clinicians tailor treatments more effectively for specific patients, part of the movement toward what’s called “personalized medicine.”
Prostate cancer continues to fascinate Febbo. In some men it grows so slowly it isn’t life threatening; in others, the cancer’s rapid growth and ability to spread to other parts of the body can make it lethal, Febbo says.
He welcomes the challenge.
“I am an eternal optimist," he says. "And part of the reason that I am at UCSF and run a lab is that while we provide significant help to men with prostate cancer, we have the potential to make discoveries that will further minimize suffering caused by this disease.”