Owen N. Witte, MD, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles
For more than three decades, the scientific discoveries of Owen N. Witte, MD, have led to lifesaving breakthroughs that illustrate the promise of, and serve as the foundation for, the field of precision medicine.
Dr. Witte’s first major discovery helped transform chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) from a fatal diagnosis to a chronic disease. Building upon earlier discoveries, Dr. Witte cracked the code for CML in the mid-1980s, identifying how the BCR-Abl gene contributed to CML. His lab identified tyrosine kinase as the cause for uncontrolled growth in white blood cells, a discovery that enabled development of Gleevec, a drug to inhibit the enzyme. Released in 2001, Gleevec revolutionized treatment for patients with CML and was an early example of precision medicine.
“As a physician and scientist, I couldn't imagine a more inspiring event,” he said about meeting a patient treated with Gleevec. “You want to continue and do more.”
His interest in B cells, which contribute to a strengthened immune system, continued; in 1993, Dr. Witte discovered a previously unknown gene, Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (Btk), while studying X-linked agammaglobulinemia (XLA), an often fatal genetic disease that weakens the immune system. Recognizing that the genetic cause for XLA might contribute to lymphomas and other autoimmune diseases, Dr. Witte continued to work with Btk. About a decade later, this work led to a bedside therapy—ibrutinib, an oral drug to inhibit Btk in patients with mantle cell lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Dr. Witte is still working to identify biological causes for fatal diseases, with recent research focused on prostate cancer. As founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Dr. Witte has fostered a collaborative and multidisciplinary regenerative medicine program at UCLA comprised of more than 200 clinicians, scientists, and engineers working to heal patients with cancer, genetic diseases, and other conditions. Their breakthrough research has resulted in high-impact scientific journal publications, multiple clinical trials, and significant research grants and philanthropic support. In addition to serving as the director of the center, Dr. Witte is an appointed member of the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel.
Dr. Witte has received many awards, including the Milken Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the American Association for Cancer Research, the Dameshek Prize of the American Society of Hematology, the Alpert Foundation Prize, and the de Villiers International Achievement Award. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a university professor for the University of California system, one of just 40 faculty members to receive this title, which is the highest honor of the University of California system.
After graduating from Cornell University, Dr. Witte attended medical school at Stanford University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology prior to joining the UCLA faculty in 1980.