The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of the world’s leading centers for biomedical research and innovation, has found its new leader after a year of searching. Larry Corey, the international HIV vaccine expert, has been named to replace the retiring Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, 70, in the top job at the Seattle-based nonprofit research center. Corey will start in his new position January 1.
The “Hutch” introduced its new president this morning at a press conference at 10 am local time at its South Lake Union campus.
“The Hutchinson Center is a premier research institution, and we needed someone with outstanding scientific and leadership credentials to take on this role,” said Doug Walker, the chairman of the center’s board, in a statement. Corey, he said, “can really represent the center on a world stage.”
The new president has just won one of the plum jobs in the U.S. biomedical research establishment, yet will have plenty of challenges to face. The center, founded in 1975, lays out an extremely ambitious mission—“the elimination of cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death.” Over its 35-year history, it has built a staff of more than 2,700 employees with a research budget of more than $390 million a year. That activity makes the Hutch a major magnet for biomedical research and cancer treatment in the Northwest, and it has historically served as one of the engines for creation of the region’s biotech industry.
Hartwell, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for his discoveries of basic cell processes in yeast, presided over a period of tremendous growth. In his 13-year run at the top, the Hutch’s budget more than doubled and the staff grew by more than 500 people, according to this Seattle Times report from last August. The Hutch relies heavily on its ability to win competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the center has become so skilled at grantwinning that it gets more NIH grant money than any other U.S. research center, the Times said. But the NIH budget, like those of a lot of other agencies in the nation’s capital, is under pressure to make cuts. That could put more pressure on centers like the Hutch to raise their game in snagging philanthropic support, even while many donors’ investment portfolios haven’t fully recovered from the economic downturn.
So it’s safe to say the new president will have a hard act to follow.
The center has lately been on a major push in the field of immunotherapy, in which scientists seek to “teach” a patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells. The field has been plagued by anecdotal successes that couldn’t be repeated in rigorous trials, but evidence for the approach has been mounting in recent years. Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) has renewed enthusiasm for the approach after it won FDA approval in April for the first drug that works to actively stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells. Earlier stage research at the Hutch, including some compelling work by Cassian Yee, helped prompt the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to pledge $10 million last November to accelerate work in the field.
One of the key questions for the new president will be how the center relates to private industry. The Hutch has played a historic role in launching Seattle’s biotech industry, through a long line of earlier-generation companies like Immunex, Icos, and Rosetta Inpharmatics. The effort to commercialize much of the Hutch’s research appeared to lag for a few years earlier this decade, although there have been renewed connections to the business world in recent years through companies like Ikaria, Presage Biosciences, and Adaptive TCR, as well as an ambitious nonprofit, Sage Bionetworks, that’s lighting a spark for open source biology in academia and industry. The Hutch’s point man on industry relations, Ulrich Mueller, talked about his goals in forming connections with industry, and how this fit into Hartwell’s vision for the center, in this exclusive interview with Xconomy in September 2008.
I’m attending today’s press conference, and will plan to update this story when I’ve had time to gather more material on the new president’s background, and vision for the Hutch. I’ll be sure to ask questions about how this might affect the way the Hutch relates to the business community both in Seattle and the national and international biotech communities. If you have any questions you’d like me to ask, just shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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