Article

No time to waste for breast cancer patients

Hiro Nitta is a man of many passions, whether performing magic in traditional Japanese costume, caring for his beloved poodles or developing better cancer tests to help save lives.

“Whatever I do, I give it 100 percent,” says this scientist whose work through Roche has impacted millions of patients globally.

After 40 years in the laboratory, Hiro isn’t even close to retiring. “We have so much more to do for patients. There’s no time to waste.”

Hiro, a Senior Scientific Fellow at Roche Diagnostics, has spent much of the past two decades researching and developing diagnostic tests for patients with HER2-positive breast cancer to help determine which patients may benefit from targeted therapy. This aggressive disease is fueled by the amplification of a gene known as HER2, which occurs in as many as 20 percent of the 2.1 million new cases of breast cancer diagnosed globally each year.1,2

Solving breast cancer mysteries


Decades ago, scientists faced a daunting breast cancer puzzle that eventually led to the discovery of the HER2 biomarker. What caused some breast cancers to grow slowly while others were far more aggressive and difficult to treat?

Scientific breakthroughs determined that in some cases, the HER2 gene was responsible for aggressive growth and poor prognosis. That understanding led to the first targeted therapy for HER2 positive patients, developed by Genentech, now a member of the Roche Group.

The companion diagnostic test that was approved for patients to receive this drug, however, required specialized technology that was not widely available. What was lacking was a simpler test that could be conducted in any lab to quickly and accurately identify HER2-positive patients around the globe.

“Some women didn’t get the right treatment because of challenges with testing,” Hiro says. “I wasn’t OK with that.”

Hiro dedicated himself to a new test which was subsequently developed by Roche and today is used by pathologists globally to determine which HER2-positive patients may benefit from targeted therapy.

But he wasn’t content to stop there. Today Hiro is focused on research that simultaneously targets the HER2 gene and HER2 protein, which enables us to further characterize HER2-positive breast cancer patients according to how similar (homogeneous) or varied (heterogeneous) tumor cells are in the same patient, providing additional clues in the fight against this disease.

Through his work at Roche Diagnostics, Hiro has authored 28 peer-reviewed publications and four book chapters. He’s been granted nearly 100 patents worldwide and presented at conferences too numerous to count.

“I can’t think of anyone that’s more passionate, more committed and more engaged in improving the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer,” says Dr. Eric Walk, who is a Chief Medical and Scientific Officer at Roche Diagnostics. “Hiro is always thinking about the future of our technology and innovations.”

 

Beacon of our culture’


This passion for discovery started when Hiro was a young boy, growing up in Hiroshima, Japan. “I always loved animals. I was always catching fish and collecting insects.”

Watching American television comedies and Disney cartoons as a boy, Hiro dreamed of coming to the United States. As a student at Tokyo’s Nihon University, he was accepted in an exchange program, and he’s made the U.S. his home since.

After earning his PhD, Hiro worked for biotechnology companies, where he became fascinated with the emerging field of gene therapy. In 1990, his work led to a call from Dr. Tom Grogan, a pathologist and founder of Ventana Medical Systems, a tissue diagnostics startup which was later acquired by Roche.

“Not only is Hiro an important scientist in the company, he is a beacon of our culture, of what it looks like when you devote your life to a cause,” says Dr. Grogan, now retired.

When Hiro isn’t in the lab, he’s performing magic - virtually, these days.

“I was so shy when I was a child and doing magic tricks in front of people forced me to become more sociable,” he says. As an award-winning magician, Hiro has performed for crowds for decades, including children in hospital pediatric units.

He’s also won awards showing his standard poodles. “Competitiveness is in my blood, and showing poodles is art,” he says.

But Hiro finds the most meaningful reward in his lab.

“I am excited to see what Hiro’s next chapters will bring for Roche and for patients. Saving patients is his North Star, his driving force. Hiro inspires me every single day,” says Dr. Eslie Dennis, a Vice President of Medical Affairs for Roche Diagnostics. “We are determined to find the cure for cancer, but we are not there yet. There is still much work to do, and Hiro is helping Roche to lead the way.”

References

 

  1. World Health Organization. GLOBOCAN 2018; All cancers fact sheet. [Interned; cited July 2020]. Available from: https://gco.iarc.fr/today/data/factsheets/cancers/39-All-cancers-fact-sheet.pdf
  2. Wolff AC, et al. Recommendations for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 testing in breast cancer: American Society of Clinical Oncology/College of American Pathologists clinical practice guideline update. J Clin Oncol. 2013;31(31):3997-4013.