When Dr. Thomas Lynch Jr. was a young boy in Hackensack, New Jersey, he would play in his backyard and watch cancer patients walking in and out of his father’s office. It was attached to his family home in that ethnically diverse suburb, just 10 miles from downtown New York City.
He knew even then that he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps into medicine.
“It’s kind of like the family business,” Lynch said, “And I’m really glad I did it.”
Following a distinguished career as a medical leader at Harvard and Yale — where he was director of the Yale Cancer Center — and a recent stint heading research at New York pharmaceuticals giant Bristol Myers-Squibb, Lynch has chosen to head West to continue his work helping to develop treatments and cures for cancer.
On Feb. 1, 2020, he took the helm of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, succeeding Dr. Gary Gilliland as president and director. Grounded in experience as a cancer physician, Lynch carries with him a deep appreciation for the value of both clinical and basic scientific research.
“I’m extremely impressed with what people bring to the table here, either what they are doing in the laboratories or in the way they support the Hutch,” he said.
After earning his M.D. at Yale Medical School, and training as an oncologist at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Lynch knew he needed to decide what kind of cancer would be the focus of his career. He chose lung cancer. Then, as now, it was the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
“I chose it because at the time there was really nothing happening in lung cancer,” Lynch said. “We were making zero progress in treatment. So, for me, it was a huge, unmet medical need.
“As an oncologist, I became very connected to cancer. I had a very big personal practice that took care of thousands of patients with lung cancer, and I really saw the impact that cancer made on people and their families. That has been a motivating factor for me my whole career.”
At Mass General, Lynch was part of a research group that found that mutations in a cell-surface protein, called epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, play an important role in helping lung cancer cells survive, and drugs that target EGFR today can slow lung cancer progression in some patients.
He worked at Mass General and Harvard for 23 years, teaching at Harvard Medical School and rising in the ranks of leadership, until he returned to New Haven, Connecticut, in 2009 to run the Yale Cancer Center.
In an interview just ahead of starting at Fred Hutch, he said he intends to play on the center’s core strengths as he guides it in this new decade. “There are four big areas that we look forward to continuing to invest in,” he said. These areas include:
- Cancer and the immune system — Using genetically engineered T-cell therapies, checkpoint inhibitors that restore natural immune responses, or transplants of bone marrow or blood-forming stem cells.
- The intersection of technology, data science and bioscience — Where machine learning and artificial intelligence are used to detect, prevent or treat diseases.
- Precision oncology — Discovering biomarkers for an individual’s cancer and crafting therapies to fit the targets found in that patient.
- Viruses and infectious diseases — Understanding the role of pathogens in causing cancers, preventing viral threats like HIV, and discovering how communities of bacteria in our gut (the microbiome) affect the immune system and responses to drugs and vaccines.
Lynch, who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, said the most important challenge facing cancer centers in the U.S. is to increase the stream of funding, from all sources. He said it is particularly important for the Hutch to continue to invest in fundamental research to understand the complexity of tumors and why they differ so much.
“Remember, the vast majority of advanced cancers are still not cured,” he said. “And that problem is not an engineering problem. It’s an ideas problem. We need to continue to invest in basic science to be able to drive ideas that give us new opportunities to improve cures.
“You want to give creative scientists more room to breathe and more room to pursue pathways they think are important,” Lynch said.
That approach appealed to Dr. Sue Biggins, who is senior vice president and director of the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch.
“It helps to have a leader who appreciates what fundamental discoveries have done for medicine. Tom can make that link,” she said. “He’s clearly good at relationship building, but also understands there is still a place for individuals. He seems to really enable people and has a long track record of hearing everyone’s voice.”
After leading the Yale Cancer Center for six years, Lynch returned to Boston to be chairman and chief executive of the Mass General Physicians Organization, the largest multi-specialty medical group in New England.
Lynch said he hopes to bring people together to form teams and build consensus. “It’s important for people to work together, break down silos, break down barriers between groups,” he said. “It is something I constantly worked on, trying to get people to share information, share approaches.”
The move to Seattle began a new adventure for Lynch and his wife, Laura Pappano, whom he met while they were undergraduates at Yale. Pappano is an award-winning journalist and author, and board chair of the renowned Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
This is their first time living on the West Coast. They bring to Seattle their love of theater, the outdoors, tennis playing, professional sports and the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Competitive zeal, energy and passion for excellence defined Lynch’s approach to medicine since he was a child watching his dad treat patients, and those attributes drew him to Seattle.
“I think the idea that “Cures Start Here” is much more meaningful to me than a tagline on our buildings. I think it is the reason people come to Fred Hutch,” he said.
— By Sabin Russell, Feb. 1, 2020