A native of Peru, Dr Vivanco received his BA in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and his PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of California at Los Angeles. As a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr Charles Sawyers, Dr Vivanco became interested in a very peculiar characteristic of cancer cells known as oncogene addiction. Oncogene addiction is a cellular condition wherein a cancer cell, as a consequence of gene mutation and the subsequent rewiring of ill-defined molecular programs, becomes entirely dependent (or addicted) on the activity of a single gene product. Because this addiction is unique to cancer cells and is not seen in the remaining normal tissue from which the cancer arose, oncogene addiction provides a therapeutic opportunity for drugs that can turn off the activity of the addicting oncogene as they will not cause damage to normal cells.
During his graduate studies with Dr Sawyers, Dr Vivanco studied how a very common genetic alteration found in human cancer, namely the loss of a tumour suppressor protein called PTEN, enhanced the dependence of cells on the activity of JNK kinases. He showed that drugs that inactivate JNK can inhibit the growth of PTEN-deficient cells while having minimal effects on PTEN-intact cells.
After receiving his PhD, Dr Vivanco continued to study oncogene addiction in the laboratory of Dr Ingo Mellighoff at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he focused on another oncogene called EGFR. His studies have provided proof-of-concept for ongoing clinical trials of EGFR inhibitors in glioblastoma.
In the last few years, Dr Vivanco has begun to characterize the molecular basis of addiction to a signalling pathway called PI3K, which is altered in the majority of human cancers. He hopes that by understanding the role of the various molecules within this pathway in cancer cell survival, he will be able to devise novel therapeutic strategies across a variety of cancer types.