Dr. Owen Witte, renowned scientist and esteemed member of UCLA’s faculty, has been appointed a University Professor by the University of California Board of Regents. This appointment is reserved for scholars of the highest international distinction, who are respected as teachers of exceptional ability and whose contributions elevate the entire UC system.

The University Professor title was established by the regents so that the entire UC system can benefit from the talents of outstanding faculty. Witte joins the ranks of just 40 UC faculty, including several Nobel laureates, who have received this honor since 1960.

“Dr. Witte has made a significant impact at UCLA through his scientific achievements and visionary leadership,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “As University Professor, Witte’s efforts to unite and energize collaborative biomedical research across the UC system will only build upon his legacy — and further strengthen the competitiveness of our research enterprise.”  

Witte’s accomplishments include impactful scientific discoveries, advocacy for science education funding and exemplary leadership as founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. His ability to create strategic partnerships across disciplines enables groups of elite clinicians, scientists and engineers to pursue breakthrough research with the shared goal of improving human health. Those partnerships are ultimately what lead to critical advances in diagnosing and treating disease.

An admirer of the arts, Witte draws many parallels between art and science. He believes scientific exploration is a creative endeavor in which one should expect to experience changes and transitions and find inspiration in outside-the-box ideas to drive continual productivity and invention.

“One of my top goals when creating the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA was to support the creativity of faculty who are pushing the envelope,” said Witte. “Concurrently, individual creativity must be blended with cooperation and collaboration to overcome the multifaceted challenges associated with understanding and treating disease.”

Witte’s research focuses on understanding the cellular traits of disease, then transferring that knowledge from the lab to the patient by identifying potential new drugs or treatments designed to target specific disease-causing activities.

On the path to discovery

Scientific breakthroughs began early in Witte’s career. While attending medical school at Stanford, he began working on pinpointing the genetic activity and cellular changes that lead to certain types of leukemia in the lab of Dr. Irving Weissman, professor of pathology and director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford.

After graduating from medical school, Witte decided to dedicate his career to biomedical research, pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the lab of Nobel laureate Dr. David Baltimore. Witte’s research during this time laid the foundation for the development of several cancer therapies, including Ibrutinib, which treats several types of leukemia and lymphoma, and Gleevec, which was the first targeted therapy for chronic myeloid leukemia.

“Dr. Witte has certainly earned the regents’ title of University Professor,” said Baltimore, president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology. “He has a highly distinguished career in research at UCLA and has become a true campus leader. By staying at UCLA for his whole career, he has been able to make deep contributions to the culture and eminence of the school. He is a notable teacher and has graduated a remarkable group of trainees who occupy important positions in American biomedical science. He is a ‘jewel in the crown’ of the University of California and deserves the highest recognition for his accomplishments.”

“I admire Dr. Witte tremendously and have always looked up to him for scientific inspiration,” said Dr. George Daley, a professor at Harvard Medical School who also trained in Baltimore’s lab and is now director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Boston Children's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Dr. Witte is renowned for the cleverness and rigor of his work,” Daley said. “For decades he has been a pacesetter in cancer biology; countless thousands of people are living today because of his contributions to our understanding of chronic myeloid leukemia. The University Professor appointment reflects the high esteem in which he’s held by the community of cancer biologists.”

Witte’s current research focuses on better understanding, and potentially treating, aggressive forms of prostate cancer. He’s collaborating with scientists at five other universities, including four UC campuses.

Motivated to approach research from nontraditional angles, Witte is currently convening UCLA scientists who study different types of cancers to look at commonalities, such as the stem cell characteristics many cancer cells possess.

A champion for science education, Witte singlehandedly revived an important scholarship program at UCLA that supports the education of dozens of Southern California undergraduates in the sciences. Also, under his leadership, the stem cell center received the largest training grant awarded to a list of institutions by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine for three consecutive grant cycles. After the state discontinued the program, Witte took it upon himself to raise philanthropic funds to replace this critical funding.

Witte has also bridged the divide between academic science and industry, helping to bring novel diagnostics and therapeutic discoveries to patients. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to co-found many successful companies, including Agensys, Sofie Biosciences, Kite Pharmaceuticals and, most recently, Trethera.

“For the last half century, the title of University Professor has been conferred on some of the University of California’s most distinguished and accomplished faculty members,” said Susan Carlson, vice provost of academic personnel and programs at the UC Office of the President. “Its unique feature is an appointment not just to one campus, but across all campuses, enabling University Professors to bring their dedication to innovative teaching and groundbreaking research to students and faculty across the University of California. It is a high honor.”