Spotlight on Gary Gilliland

Setting Ambitious Goals to Cure Cancer

Gary Gilliland, physician-scientist and leader

Dr. Gary Gilliland, a renowned physician-scientist, is an expert in cancer genetics and precision medicine. He has devoted his life to finding better treatments and cures.

“We’ve made enormous progress in treating cancer patients and improving their quality of life, but our goal is to cure cancer,” he said. “For the first time, for me at least, I can see it coming across a broad spectrum of human cancers. The place where that will happen — the leading edge for that — is Fred Hutch.”

Gilliland, who led Fred Hutch from 2015 to early 2020, sought to reinforce the center’s longstanding commitment to scientific excellence. Under his leadership, Fred Hutch grew and diversified its faculty, increased its already-strong federal grant funding and quadrupled the endowment. Gilliland also focused on forging connections between researchers in different disciplines. Among his major initiatives was the creation of the Hutch’s Integrated Research Centers, or IRCs, which promote collaboration among researchers across campus and throughout the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium on high-impact, innovative projects.

Dr. Gary Gilliland
Dr. Gary Gilliland was president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from 2015 to early 2020. Gilliland is a renowned physician-scientist and holds a Ph.D. in microbiology as well as a medical doctorate. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

He holds both a Ph.D. in microbiology and a medical doctorate and spent 20 years at Harvard Medical School, where he was professor of medicine as well as professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University. He was also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and the director of the leukemia program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. He has earned numerous honors for his work, including election to the National Academy of Medicine.

The bulk of his initial work at Harvard focused on the genetic basis of blood cancers.

“This decade will be pivotal in the development of new, curative therapies. The metrics are looking good.”

In 2009, Gilliland left Harvard to go to Merck Research Laboratories to learn how, in his words, “to take a good idea and turn it into a cancer treatment.”

As Merck’s senior vice president and global oncology franchise head, he oversaw preclinical and clinical oncology development, as well as clinical oncology licensing. During his four-year tenure, he and the Merck team brought an immunotherapy cancer drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda) to market in record time, from the first human trials in 2011 to approval in 2014 by the Food and Drug Administration.

In 2013, Gilliland returned to academia when he became the vice dean and vice president of precision medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he worked to bring together research and clinical care initiatives across disciplines to create a model for delivering personalized medicine to patients with a range of diseases.

He took the helm as Fred Hutch’s leader in January 2015 and stepped into the role of president and director emeritus at the end of January 2020.

In his announcement to the Hutch community about his plan to step down, Gilliland wrote that he was “proud of what we’ve accomplished together.”

But, he added, “I say ‘we’ because, ultimately, this organization’s success isn’t measured by the work of any one person. It is the result of the commitment and dedication of everyone here.”

“This decade will be pivotal in the development of new, curative therapies. The metrics are looking good,” he wrote as he looked back on his career and at the future of Fred Hutch.

RELATED RESOURCES