Larry Corey, Virus Hunter With Midwest Roots, Seeks to Unleash Health Innovation at Hutch

8/2/10Follow @xconomy

Raising her son in a middle class home in the Detroit area in the ’50s and ’60s, Larry Corey‘s mother dreamed he’d become a doctor. Now he’s set his sights much higher, as the new president and director of one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutes, a place that seeks to do no less than eliminate cancer as a cause of suffering and death.

Corey, 63, was introduced Friday at a press conference in Seattle as the new president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Doug Walker, the chairman of the “Hutch” board said Corey was the guy with the “impeccable scientific and leadership credentials” needed to run a center that’s home to three Nobel laureates and 2,600 employees, and which has an annual budget of more than $390 million.

Corey found himself in position to take on such a hefty responsibility at the Hutch after arriving in Seattle 35 years ago for a postdoctoral fellowship “on a lark.” He ended up putting down roots in the Northwest, and building his career as a leading physician-scientist in the battles against viral invaders, particularly HIV and genital herpes. He’s built alliances among scientists throughout his career. The work hasn’t led to an HIV vaccine, or a cure for cancer. But Corey’s job over the coming years will be create the medical and scientific environment where other people can make breakthrough discoveries and help deliver them into the real world.

“Great ideas make for great scientific opportunities. And great scientific opportunities will provide large programs,” Corey says. “The major thing is that whatever we do, we do world class, and that we make an impact on human health.”

As you’d expert, the new president is getting started with a lot of public votes of confidence. Walker, the chairman of the Hutch board, said Corey is “uniquely poised” to form new partnerships to help the center reach its goals. Fred Appelbaum, the director of the clinical research division at the Hutch, noted at the press conference that “a lot of people have vision,” but that Corey was the right man for the job because he has not just vision, but the ability to follow through on it. And Robert Nelsen, the managing director of Arch Venture Partners in Seattle and a member of the center’s board, said, “he is great choice—very sharp and creative. He will bring a fresh and forward-looking leadership to the Hutch.”

Once the press conference was over, I had a chance to follow up with Corey in more detail by phone, to learn more about him as a person and the approach he intends to take in this new job.

Corey started on his journey toward such a lofty position from “a middle-class family of humble means.” He was born in Detroit, as the youngest of three, with two older sisters. His father ran a scrap rag business for a time before that ran into financial hardship, and then managed a produce section at a grocery store. His mother was a homemaker.

The modest upbringing helped light a fire in Corey, which was partly out of necessity. The family didn’t have a lot of money, and he relied on a series of scholarships to help pay his way through school. And he didn’t intend to waste the time or the money. He was the classic young man in a hurry—skipped a grade in school, graduated from the University of Michigan at 20, and got into a fast-track medical program at the university that allowed him to get an MD in three years rather than four. When he got his medical degree, he enrolled in postgraduate training at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and was able to shave a full year off that usual training program. He became a tenured professor at the University of Washington at 37.

“I was always the young one,” Corey says. “I have to say probably more motivated by financial issues to move forward in life.”

All that restless energy had to be directed somewhere, and it wasn’t immediately obvious where it would go when Corey stepped onto the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. He picked up much of his passion for medicine in his early 20s from … Next Page »

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