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 his older brother-in-law, who was an ophthalmologist. The motivation to do something in medicine grew stronger when his brother-in-law was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and ultimately died of sepsis, a massive bacterial infection. Corey was 26 at the time.

“That was a profound moment in my life,” Corey says.

While some researchers say they were inspired to enter their field based on a personal experience like that, it wasn’t really the case for Corey. In medical school, he had considered becoming a cardiologist. When he secured his position in the Public Health Service at the CDC, during the Vietnam War era, he didn’t know exactly what he was going to get assigned to do. There was a possibility he could have been sent to a combat zone. He ended up assigned to the viral disease division, at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

“It was easy to decide,” Corey says. “They said, ‘OK, this is where your assignment is.”

Studying the ways of viruses turned out to be his calling. Corey got to work on basic virology of flu, rabies, and a rare condition called Reye’s Syndrome. He was mentored at the CDC by Walter Dowdle, a renowned virus researcher, and Mike Gregg, who Corey says “taught me how to write scientifically.”

By 28, Corey was married and had his first child. He knew of the University of Washington, and had heard it had a good infectious disease research program, but didn’t know much beyond that. He went for it, on a lark, he says.

“It was sort of like, we’re young, we had one child, let’s explore the world, and so we came out here,” Corey says. “We thought we’d be out here for a couple years. We’ve been here since 1975.”

From the start, Corey preferred to make himself a well-rounded physician-scientist. That meant he would split time between researching basic questions in the lab, while continuing to see patients and see how ideas got applied in the clinic.

By 1987, Corey’s name was well-established among his scientific peers, around the same time the AIDS epidemic was spreading around the world and making for some very scary headlines. That year, he was elected by colleagues to run the first AIDS clinical trial group. By 1996, he was recruited to the Hutch by Appelbaum and Robert Day, the president and director of the center at the time. A year later, the cancer center greatly expanded its mission in infectious disease, as Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health asked Corey to spearhead the HIV Vaccine Trials Network from his base at the Hutch.

Corey climbed through the ranks of science at least partially because of his ability to get along with people, and encourage them to apply their talents. Instead of holing up in a secretive research bunker to do battle in the competitive world of biomedical research, Corey has long sought to form alliances to help mobilize more talent to help achieve his goals.

“I’ve been able to coordinate things and make people work together in a team, and have some fun,” Corey says. “I like collaborating, I find people interesting. I like approaching people with the attitude of ‘can you help, can you be a part of the solution?’ And I also try to instill an ethic that says if people come and ask to talk about a partnership, your first proclivity should be to try to say yes, to try to make something happen in a positive way.”

Much of Corey’s teamwork ethic is at least inspired by his lifelong interest in team sports. He grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers and Michigan Wolverines, and still has a soft spot for them, even though today his allegiance is for the Seattle Mariners and Washington Huskies. He’s a longtime season ticketholder at Safeco Field, and has often doled out tickets as a reward for people who have helped him.

Corey also keeps up an active exercise regimen. He swims, and has played tennis throughout his life. Taking a hard whack at the tennis ball is often a good way to blow off steam, he says. He also like to cook, attend local theater and opera, and enjoys fine wine.

Those recreational activities that will make for good conversation with the donors Corey will have to cultivate in his role the fundraiser-in-chief for a nonprofit research center that leans heavily on philanthropy—especially when NIH budgets tighten up.

Even though Corey has been at the Hutch doing research and clinical trial work for more than a decade, and certainly knows many of the 186 faculty on campus, he says his first task will be getting to know the institution better from the inside. That means making the rounds with the faculty, listening to them talk about their “visions, aspirations, and stories.”

It’s possible that after getting to know the faculty better, both personally and through their projects, that some changes could be made, Corey says. It might be as simple as getting a new piece of equipment for a lab, or possibly something more significant, like moving around 8 to 10 people into a coordinated group for an “impact program” that might move faster than if individual researchers operate independently.

Once he knows the center better from the inside, the conditions will be ripe for the faculty to thrive.

“The director needs to learn their stories, be an advocate for them, and to remove as many of the obstacles as possible to allow their scientific innovation to occur,” Corey says. “That’s the engine that will drive the business of the center.”

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