University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Year in Review: 2020

By Karen Gehrman | HDFCCC | December 16, 2020

Year in Review: 2020

This year was difficult for all of us, personally and collectively. The COVID-19 pandemic transformed every aspect of our lives and called for us to adapt in unprecedented ways. It was gratifying – yet not surprising – to see how the UCSF community met the  challenges of 2020. In cancer, our care teams and scientists met limitations and setbacks with compassion and innovation. They provided the excellent care for which UCSF is known, and continued making advances on all fronts.

Here are some highlights about the people and events that shaped our year.

As COVID Arrives, Team Science Steps Up 

COVIDFrom the earliest days of COVID-19 arriving in the US, HDFCCC members across disciplines began applying their expertise. Dr. Charles Chiu developed an inexpensive new test using CRISPR technology to rapidly diagnose COVID-19 infections.
Geneticist Nevan Krogan, PhD, assembled and led a world-wide collaboration - called the UCSF-based Quantitative Biosciences Institute (QBI) Coronavirus Research Group -to fast-track efforts to find the proteins in cells that get highjacked by COVID-19 to identify a target for a vaccine. After a round-the-clock, two-month process, Krogan identified more than 300 human proteins that interact with SARS-CoV-2 during infection. "We're kind of crowdsourcing it,” noted collaborator Kevan Shokat, PhD. "Everyone is seeing what compounds we have in our labs, work we haven't published yet, drugs that are already commercially available, or drugs that other people have developed." 
Researchers in the lab of Peter Walter, PhD, devised AeroNabs, an aerosol "personal PPE" which could provide powerful, reliable protection against SARS-CoV-2 until a vaccine becomes widely used.

Health Disparities in Cancer and in COVID

Kim Rhoads, MD, director of the HDFCCC Office of Community Engagement, led efforts to bring COVID testing and information to Black residents of San Francisco and the East Bay in coordination with clinics, churches, the Alameda County Public Health Department, and community organizations such as the Brotherhood of Elders Network, and the Friends of Frank. In close consulatation with our Community Advisory Board, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, Dr. Rhoads' work seeks to address unmet needs of our most underserved communities through sustained, non-transactional community engagement.

Cancer Research Highlights

The year started off with two noteworthy cancer research conferences. The 1st Annual ZSFG Cancer Research Symposium in January brought together scientists, clinicians, and support staff across UCSF to consider the unique needs of the diverse patient population in the city's only public hospital. Our Breast Oncology Program  held their annual retreat for the first time at the Mission Bay Conference Center with a record crowd of researchers, patients, and advocates. 

ZSFG Symposium 2020 Coffee Mommy BOP Retreat 2020

Exciting discoveries in cancer research and treatment spanned many UCSF programs. In a "game changing" advance for prostate cancer treatment, UC San Francisco and UCLA, and their nuclear medicine teams have obtained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to offer a new imaging technique for prostate cancer that locates cancer lesions in the pelvic area and other parts of the body to which the tumors have migrated. 
Wendell Lim, PhD combined cutting-edge therapeutic cell engineering with advanced computational methods to design 'smart' cell therapies, or 'living medicines' to precisely target tumors. The WISDOM Trial hit a milestone of enrolling 30K women to evaluate a personalized screening approach for breast cancer and received additional funding to take strides to increase diversity among participants. UCSF scientists launched a precision medicine initiative to offer free voluntary whole genome sequencing to all UCSF Health patients, the most comprehensive program of its kind in the nation.
Despite the virtual format, UCSF managed an impressive presence at national conference events including the 2020 American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO) annual meeting where in addition to numerous presentations, five junior faculty were honored with Conquer Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Awards.
Population Health at Home and Abroad
SFCANOngoing efforts of the San Francisco Cancer Initiative continued to improve the health of the city's residents. Tobacco cessation methods included multiple interventions for at-risk populations, and the city-wide ban on flavored tobacco, championed by SFCAN leadership in 2017, was expanded to a statewide ban across California. SFCAN research contributed to increased colorectal cancer screening efforts in safety net settings, as well as a novel geographic analysis of the breast cancer in San Francisco to strategize neighborhood-specific interventions.
Meanwhile our Global Cancer Program furthered their mission of reducing the global cancer burden. The program received a D43 award to formally establish a cancer research training program in Tanzania, and developed a fellowship program for improving pediatric cancer care in Vietnam.

Our People: Spotlights, Honors, Transitions

Our physicians, scientists, administrators, and staff exemplify the breadth, dedication, and drive of our mission. 
Click the image to read

  C.Miaskowski F.Huang
  C.Miaskowski    D. Fujimori H. Shain UCSF

Expanding UCSF's Cancer Expertise 

UCSF Health opened new patient care centers in San Mateo and Redwood City to enable patients to receive UCSF primary, specialty, and cancer care in convenient locations close to home. Additionally, the UCSF-John Muir Health Cancer Center was opened in in the jointly operated Berkeley Outpatient Center, one of several locations planned in a developing East Bay cancer network.

Through national leadership roles, our cancer clinicians offered guidelines on safety for oncology patients and healthcare workers, screening guidelines for preventive procedures such as colonoscopies, and recommendations for how to continue cancer care during the pandemic.


Our longest running podcast, the Bay Area Breast Cancer Forum, continued to translate the latest research findings to patients and patient advocates, with a modified format for Zoom which made it more accessible. Meanwhile our CureTalks podcast series covered the latest in brain tumor research and treatment, cancer palliative care, and new findings in gastrointestinal cancers.

Awards and Honors

US News In August, US News & World Report once again listed UCSF Medical Center in the top hospitals in the US, and among the nation's most renowned for excellence in 15 adult specialties. From new National Academy of Medicine members and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellows, to 2020 Conquer Cancer Young Investigator Awards, Cancer Center members continued to be recognized as national leaders in cancer research. View our list of awards and honors received in 2020.

Transitions: Welcomes and Farewells

Cancer Center Membership grew alongside our industry and health system affiliations, welcoming over 30 new researchers in 2020. We note the retirement of many dedicated individuals after a lifetime of service at UCSF. Stanton Glantz, MD, director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, retired in September 2020 after 45 years on the faculty. Paul Volberding, MD is retiring at the end of December and stepping down as Director of the UCSF AIDS Research Institute, as are Anja Wenrick, RN and Assistant Nurse Manager, Jay Trovato, RN, HDFCCC Finance Manager Joyce Nakamura, and Preclinical Therapeutics Core manager Byron Hann, PhD. 

In Memoriam

The UCSF cancer community mourned the loss of "scientifically fearless" Zena Werb, PhD, our Associate Director of Basic Science, in June. 

As the world collectively endures the challenge of COVID in our communities, we share the grief of those who lost loved ones this year. 

In Gratitude

We are grateful for the generosity of donors whose foresight in supporting UCSF has expedited COVID innovations as well as advances in cancer care and research. We thank the many faculty and staff who allowed us to share their stories of adapting to this new normal earlier this spring and again in the fall. In the coming year, exciting and innovative research will continue regardless of the pandemic. Novel approaches to public health are changing the landscape of cancer at UCSF and beyond to provide more personalized approaches to cancer care.
As 2020 closes, we thank our patients, families, and donors whose trust and confidence inspired us this year.