San Diego’s public and private-sector fight against cancer

Aug 23, 2021 - Mary Cravens

It’s no secret that San Diego is a hub for life sciences and innovation. Equipped with homegrown talent and a shared mission to change the world, the San Diego region is home to more than 350 precision health companies, 80 research institutions, 30 hospitals, and five universities making big strides in the battle against cancer. From Hybritech’s first antibody test for prostate cancer in 1985 to modern efforts to diagnose and treat the deadliest cancers, San Diego’s history of advancements in cancer research is proof of the region’s potential. 

In fact, it’s likely that the cure for cancer will come from San Diego. These six companies and institutes belowalong with many others, might just be on their way to making history. 

Salk Institute for Biological Studies 

Throughout its history, the Salk Institute has produced Nobel Prize winners and cutting-edge cancer treatments, following Jonas Salk’s legacy and development of the first safe and effective polio vaccine in the world. Today, the Salk Institute continues to lead in cancer research with its Conquering Cancer Initiative, which focuses on five deadly cancers (pancreatic, ovarian, lung, brain, and triple-negative breast cancer). The Salk Cancer Center hopes to create treatments that destroy tumors before they develop drug resistance.  

Pfizer, La Jolla Laboratories

Pfizer La Jolla Laboratories focuses on discovering and developing new medicines to treat cancer. From its state-of-the-art campus in San Diego, Pfizer has played a large part in the advancement of many of today’s approaches to discovering new drugs to fight cancer, AIDS, and other diseases. The pharmaceutical company has led development of several cancer therapies, including Sutent, Xalkori, Ibrance, and more. Pfizer also partners with academic institutions in San Diego to bring together new findings and technologies in a range of scientific disciplines and apply them to drug discovery efforts.  


Biotech startup DermTech is working to end deaths from melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Its new technology is a patch that allows doctors to detect skin cancer rapidly without having to lacerate the skin, looking past patient skin cells and into the skin’s genes. After painlessly extracting RNA and DNA from skin tissue on a concerning mole, the sticker is sent to DermTech’s lab to be examined. DermTech’s solution is extremely accurate, with a 99 percent chance of a correct result. Not to mention, DermTech’s sticker technology captures cells from 100 percent of the mole, unlike traditional biopsies which only capture one to two percent.  


When powerhouses combine, life-changing innovation happens. GRAIL, originally an Illumina spin-off, has developed a blood test that enables early detection of 50 cancers before they are symptomatic. GRAIL’s test, dubbed Galleri, is currently available but costs $950 and is not covered by insurance. With access to GRAIL’s talent and tech following its recent acquisition, Illumina aims to increase the availability and affordability of early cancer screening, when treatment is more likely to be effective 


Erasca scientists aim to “erase cancer” in 100,000 patients every year by shutting down cancer’s most commonly mutated pathway, which affects 5.5 million people a year. Erasca’s science targets three spots to provide a holistic approach to treatment: upstream and downstream MAPK nodes, RAS directly, and escape routes. Not only is Erasca fighting cancer in San Diego through research, but the company also provides patient education, research grants, and advocacy to under-resourced populations globally. 

Scripps/MD Anderson  

San Diego’s strength is its collaboration, and a partnership between Scripps Health and MD Anderson has brought San Diego’s cancer research to a new level. Specializing in treating 45 different kinds of cancer, Scripps MD Anderson provides access to the most advanced proven treatments, leading technology, and groundbreaking research. The center’s research focuses on finding the root causes of cancer,  combination treatments to reduce the risk of cancer recurring, and testing immunotherapies.  

With your help, the cure for cancer might come from San Diego. Join the fight with one of these life-changing teams: 

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