When Dr. Larry Corey taught medical students about AIDS at the University of Washington in the late 1980s, he always brought in someone living with HIV to put a human face on what the budding doctors were learning. But it was never the same person twice, he remembers, because the patient always died before the next year. There weren’t good treatments and science wasn’t fast enough then to save them.
For decades, Corey dedicated his career to unlocking the secrets of HIV and AIDS and other infectious diseases and finding treatments that have now saved countless lives. He put his own scientific work largely on pause when he accepted the job of president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 2011. Now he is again feeling the press of time and a desire to do what he can to help speed the science.
Thursday morning, he announced he is stepping down so that he can return to his passion – making a difference through hands-on research.
“There is a difference between administrative success and scientific significance,” he said. “What significant impact can you make on humanity? That’s where you define yourself.”
Starting June 30, he’ll be trading his seat in the director's office to work full-time with his lab and clinical collaborators in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch. He’ll be a member of the faculty and will have the title of president and director emeritus. Fred Hutch Deputy Director Dr. Mark Groudine will serve as interim president and director while the Board of Trustees launches a national search for Corey’s successor.
“The Hutch’s loss of Larry as president and director is a major gain for the field of HIV vaccine research,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. Fauci and Corey have been close friends and colleagues for decades through their work in infectious diseases.
Corey, known around the world for his work in medical virology, particularly in the areas of HIV/AIDS and herpes, said his decision is the result of months of struggle as he increasingly felt himself pulled to return to science.
When he first took the job of director, he made a list of the goals he wanted to accomplish in his first five years. Recently he reviewed the list, he said, and realized he’d achieved all of them in just more than three. He’s been instrumental in revitalizing the center, hiring world-class faculty and invigorating solid tumor research, grown the Center’s endowment, birthed a state initiative that could help infuse millions of cancer-research dollars and more. All of that has helped infuse the Center with new energy.
“I’ve loved this job as president and director. The notion that cures start here now permeates the place,” he said. “We are no longer looking backward – we are looking forward.”
In recent months, Corey realized, he yearned to return to being a hands-on part of spurring new treatments, cures and vaccines.
“The issue became do I want to spend the next five years being a scientific administrator or do I want to continue to make my mark in what has been my life-long career,” he said.
Corey was a young man when he first began to feel the urgency of science. He was 26 when his brother-in-law, Thomas Banks, who had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, died of candida sepsis. Corey had known him since he was 10 years old and the two were really like brothers. Banks was a physician, an ophthalmologist, and had inspired Corey.
“He was the reason I went into medicine,” Corey remembers.
Only a few years later, as a physician scientist, Corey did research on antifungals that have now largely wiped out candida sepsis.
“It was a poignant reminder of the pace of science,” he said. “If you can move something along quicker by even a year, how many lives could you have saved?”
He still remembers the June morning in 1981 when he picked up a copy of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and read about a small group of gay men who had died after developing pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Mysteriously, all their CD4 T cells, essential to the immune system, had been destroyed.
Back then, he assumed whatever was that cause was would be identified and a treatment would be found. He had no idea that virus, now known as HIV, would become a large part of his life’s work.
At the time, he was at the pinnacle of success with acyclovir – the first antiviral that could be given to a human. He was getting excellent results using acyclovir to keep herpes in check and pioneered treatments using it with infants born with the virus. Today, the mortality rates for babies born with herpes has declined from 80 to 10 percent
“I see kids we saved then now become parents themselves,” he said.
Increasingly, he was drawn into work on HIV. Thousands were dying and there weren’t any good treatments.
“It was a traumatic time then,” he said quietly, remembering friends who died of AIDS.
Six years after reading that first report on HIV, he became the head of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) and worked to develop effective treatments. By that year, 1987, more than 50,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States and more than 40,000 had died.
In one year alone, Corey flew back and forth 20 times from Seattle to Bethesda, Maryland, without ever staying the night for meetings about HIV at the National Institutes of Health. There was too much to do. Too many people were dying. Too many more would in the future unless something could be done, he knew.
The ACTG developed and tested combination drug therapies and then protease inhibitors that extended the life expectancy of people with HIV from between six and nine months to decades.
He also moved forward a study to find out if giving AZT to HIV positive women could reduce the rate of transmission from mother to child. The study had been stalled for two years because a small group of activists felt AZT was poison that shouldn’t be given to pregnant women. Corey spun out the Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Group from the ACTG so the trial could proceed. The study, known as ACTG 076, eventually showed a 76 percent reduction of transmission and established the worldwide use of antiretrovirals for preventing maternal to child transmission of HIV.
“It was the study that changed the world,” he said. “It saved the lives of millions of babies.”
Dr. Barb Berg, chief of staff at Fred Hutch, marvels at the pivotal role Corey has played in infectious diseases. “He has more energy than anyone I know. He’s had an enormous impact on the world. I’m so excited for his work to continue.”
Dr. Robert Day, former president and director of Fred Hutch, was one of the people who recruited Corey to the Center as a researcher in 1996.
“I’m a big fan of Larry. This is a very difficult time for biomedical research and he’s dealt with that difficulty very well,” he said. “He’s increased contributions for science and other purposes. He developed a Ugandan branch of the center for treating cancer. He’s brought in new contributors. Now he’ll be able to apply his full attention (to research) and I think it’s a good time for that. His contributions will be even bigger and broader than in the past because we know so much more.”
While better treatments have been developed for people living with AIDS, Corey has set his sights on a vaccine. He’s the founder and director of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, a collaboration of scientists around the world working toward an HIV vaccine.
Today, outside the brightly lit Corey Lab at Fred Hutch, across the street from his current office, photos of people living with HIV line the wall. In one, a young woman looks into the camera. In another, a small child with a feeding tube rests against a chair.
“I want my grandchildren to grow up in the AIDS-free world that I did,” he said. “I want them to be able to get vaccinated for HIV and for herpes and to not have to worry. That’s the dream.”
He has other dreams as well. The quest to make a vaccine against herpes is closer than ever, he said. And last year he helped found Juno Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on novel immunotherapies for cancer using reprogrammed T cells that directly attack the malignancy while avoiding healthy tissue.
“We want to make it the front-line treatment so people don’t have to go through chemotherapy and radiation and all of those side effects,” he said.
Groudine is eager for what’s ahead. “Corey has incredible vision and he is so full of ideas.”
There is much to do, and after all these years, Corey still feels the same sense of urgency and is eager to get back to it.
“Miracles really do happen in the labs,” he said.
Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and msnbc.com. She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.