The thousands of cancer doctors and researchers in the American Society of Clinical Oncology could not have picked a better place when they came together in Los Angeles last week.

The city is the site of high-level research at institutions such as UCLA, USC and, just to the east, the City of Hope. It is itself a frequent subject of research, a place where pioneering researchers started probing cancer patterns in the population nearly three decades ago.

It's also a hotbed of alternative therapies and legal controversies over who gets treated and who should pay.

"I think we're very well placed because of the scope and variety of research centers placed around the city," said Dr. Derek Raghavan, chief of medical oncology and associate director of USC's Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, who recently came to USC from Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.

There are certain things L.A. is not, however. It's not a place of venerable research and clinical traditions, so its reputation may take some time to catch up with its achievements. It's not one of the national centers for commercial biotechnology. In California, such activity clusters more around San Diego and San Francisco.

And in such a big and sprawling city, with so many people vying for a piece of the public's attention, news about progress against cancer can get drowned out by the noise. Indeed, the ASCO meeting attracted much more national media attention than local.

But there's plenty of hopeful news on cancer, as the meeting showed, and some of the most significant news has Los Angeles links.

Research at UCLA, for instance, has paved the way for a major new advance in the treatment of breast cancer the first successful trial of a gene-based drug against one virulent form of the disease. Researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center said the drug Herceptin reduced tumors substantially in more than half the women studied when combined with chemotherapy. UCLA and South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. developed Herceptin.

Leading the research and early development of the drug was UCLA's Dr. Dennis Slamon, who called it "the first successful cancer treatment that targets a specific genetic alteration, as opposed to using a shotgun approach that kills both diseased and healthy cells."

Research and development of cancer treatments is such a global effort that no city can claim to be the world leader in it. The next big advance could come from any one of dozens of places. During the 1997 fiscal year, the National Cancer Institute awarded research grants in all but two states, Wyoming and Idaho. The NCI lists 58 hospitals and other sites, in 28 states and the District of Columbia, as official cancer centers, for their leadership in research, treatment and education.

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