Dr. David Alberts: A legacy of encouragement, innovation and scientific rigor

Dr. Alberts, who passed away on July 29 at the age of 83, not only assisted in creating the Arizona Cancer Center in 1976, but he also developed the center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program into one of the top programs in the United States.  He was honored with the inaugural AZBio Pioneer Award in 2012.


As a founding member of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, David Alberts, M.D. and his influence on cancer research epitomizes Isaac Newton’s famous quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“Dr. Albert’s was a great beacon of innovation and scientific exploration for the center,” said cancer center director, Joann Sweasy, PhD. “He was a source of encouragement for me in taking on the role of director, and he helped the center evolve to meet the specific needs of our community.”

Dr. Alberts, who passed away on July 29 at the age of 83, not only assisted in creating the Arizona Cancer Center in 1976, but he also developed the center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program into one of the top programs in the United States.

Dr. Alberts served as the cancer center’s director from 2005 until his retirement in 2013 and continued his work part-time until 2017.

“Dr. Alberts was a visionary leader with a unique capacity to move forward ambitious academic agendas while consistently relating to and supporting the success of the cancer center team members,” said Clara Curiel-Lewandrowski, MD, co-director of the Skin Cancer Institute, chief of dermatology and director of the Cutaneous Oncology in the University of Arizona Division of Dermatology, Department of Medicine. “The UACC Skin Cancer Institute, co-founded by Dr. Alberts in 2007, represents an example of his commitment to addressing relevant challenges affecting our Arizona community through the power of alliance and a team approach driven by scientific rigor. I am grateful for his mentorship.”

A life dedicated to cancer discoveries

Dr. Alberts received his Doctor of Medicine in 1966 from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He completed an internship at the University of Wisconsin, then was a clinical associate in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute’s Baltimore Cancer Research Center.

Dr. Alberts conducted his internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota. He served on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, for five years and obtained board certification in medicine and medical oncology in 1973.

In 1975, he moved to Arizona with his wife, Heather, and children Sabrina and Timothy. He joined the University’s College of Medicine as an assistant professor where he served for 48 years, retiring as a Regents Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, Nutritional Science, Public Health and BIO5 at the University’s College of Medicine. He continued working part-time after his retirement until 2017.

“Our Dad was always there for his patients at any time of the day or night,” said daughter Sabrina Alberts Plattner, M.Ed., health educator, senior, in the UArizona Health Promotion Sciences Department of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “His compassion, commitment and overall care for his patients was unmatched.  He will be remembered by his patients and their families forever.”

Dr. Alberts’ life dedication was not only to his career but also to his loving wife of 60 years, Heather, and their family.  

“He was an especially proud grandfather to Samuel, Sydney and Tate Alberts and Sophie and Emma Plattner,” Plattner said. “He had a great sense of humor and passion for sports, especially the UArizona basketball and football teams, where he was a season ticket holder for 48 years.”

Transforming women’s cancer health

During his time at the Cancer Center, Dr. Alberts pioneered new treatments for advanced ovarian cancers, including in vitro tumor cell chemosensitivity testing for personalized medicine strategies, intraperitoneal chemotherapy, and maintenance chemotherapy. He also assisted in creating a dietary and physical activity intervention for survivors to prevent cancer recurrence.

“Dave was a true visionary in his recognition of the many cancer deaths that could be prevented were we to fully implement the prevention strategies that we already know about,” said Peter Lance, MD, FRCP, professor emeritus, in the UArizona Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Dr. Alberts’ laboratory research concentrated on the evaluation of new endpoint biomarkers for cancer prevention trials with a special focus on precursor lesions for bladder, breast, color, cervical, endometrial, ovarian, prostate and skin cancers using quantitative histopathology approaches. His NCI funded drug and diagnostics research resulted in 18 patents and the co-founding of four Arizona pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

A supportive mentor, supervisor and friend

Dr. Alberts was an eternal optimist, according to Jennifer W. Bea, PhD, co-director of the Cancer Center shared resources and co-leader of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program and associate professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

“He said to me and to our fellows once in a career development session, ‘I can outlast any reviewer.’  I never forgot it. It pushes me still,” Dr. Bea said. “He believed in the quality of our science and patient care and simply persisted until the grants were won and the approvals acquired.”

Dr. Bea said that as her supervisor and mentor, Dr. Alberts gave her increasingly difficult tasks, some of which she felt unprepared.

“He then cheered me on and coached me to the finish line, never criticizing, just supporting. Whenever I feel frustrated with a student, staff member, or colleague, I ask myself, “What would Dave do,’” Dr. Bea said. “I know the answer. He would operate from a place of kindness and collaboration, always moving toward our common goals. Dave was also a connector and a master at putting multidisciplinary teams together and fostering their success.”

Dr. Bea said that beyond work, he treated everyone like family, and invited them into his home often for program gatherings, networking with trainees, celebrations, and more. “Many of us know his wife, Heather, his children, and grandchildren and care deeply for them, as well,” Dr. Bea said.

During his career, Dr. Alberts also served as an advisor to numerous cancer research foundations and committees. He was the chair of the Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee to the FDA from 1984 to 1986 and the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Counselors to the Division of Cancer Prevention from 1990 to 1994. He was on the Board of Scientific Advisors from 1999 to 2006 and on the Clinical Translational Advisory Committee from 2006 to 2009.

Dr. Alberts was a prolific writer.  He authored or co-authored more than 540 peer reviewed publications, 100 book chapters and 60 invited articles, and editor and co-editor of nine books. He served on the editorial boards of peer-reviewed scientific journals including serving as associate editor for Cancer Research from 1989-2002 and co-editor-in-chief of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention from 2002 and 2008.

In June 2001, was named by the journal, Science, to be one of the top three National Institutes of Health-funded clinical researchers in the United States.

Hsiao-Hui (Sherry) Chow, PhD, co-director of Cancer Center shared resources, analytical chemistry, said that Dr. Alberts’ legacy as a compassionate mentor and a steadfast advocate for excellence will endure in the lives of those he touched.

“Dr. Alberts was a beacon of inspiration and unwavering support to all who had the privilege of crossing paths with him,” Dr. Chow said. “His unwavering commitment to excellence, coupled with a genuine sense of compassion, shone brightly in every endeavor he undertook.”

Dr. Chow said that his dedication to his work was matched only by the depth of care he showed for his colleagues and friends.

“Whether it was a word of encouragement during challenging times or a helping hand to navigate professional complexities, he was always there, a reliable source of support and wisdom,” she said. “We will carry forward the profound impact of his guidance, ever grateful for the lessons learned from a true exemplar of humanity.”

In 2003, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) awarded him the Dr. Joseph H. Burchenal Clinical Research Award, and a year later, the American Society for Preventive Oncology honored him with its Distinguished Career Award for research excellence for his contributions to cancer clinical care and the AACR awarded Dr. Alberts with its Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation Award for Excellence in Cancer Prevention Research Worldwide. In 2014, he was honored by the American Association for Cancer Research with its Pioneer in Cancer Prevention Awards.

Cynthia Thomson, PhD, RDN, interim associate director for Population Science and Cancer Center shared resources, said that Dr. Alberts’ generous and selfless investment of time into his colleagues has left a lasting memory for her and for many people who knew him.

“In life we are sometimes blessed to meet people who alter our life’s course for the better. Dave Alberts was the person for me. I can never repay his kindness, his willingness to impart knowledge, and to share his astute vision,” said Dr. Thomson. “He was ahead of his time in seeing the importance of engaging women in cancer prevention science. He worked hard to ensure our voices were heard and our lives were inspired to prevent cancer and ‘save people from the labor of being sick.’”

Dr. Alberts’ memorial service is Sunday, Aug. 6, at 10 a.m. at the Westward Look Resort. The family asks that in lieu of flowers you please make donations to support the Dr. David Alberts Endowed Fellowship for Cancer Prevention, payable to the University of Arizona Foundation/University of Arizona Cancer Center and mail to 1515 N. Campbell Ave., P.O. Box 245024 Tucson, AZ, 85724-5018.

Posted in AZBio News.