Matt McIlwain, who was named vice-chair of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s board of trustees on Monday, believes that cancer breakthroughs will increasingly be found at the intersection of the biological sciences, computer science, and data science. And he aims to help Fred Hutch find that sweet spot.
A managing director of the Madrona Venture Group, which invests in early-stage companies, McIlwain joined the Hutch board in 2013. Among the highlights of his first three years was the “commercialization of the great research in the area of immunotherapy,” the creation of biopharmaceutical company Juno Therapeutics. Then came the board’s hiring of physician-scientist Dr. Gary Gilliland as Fred Hutch president and director in January 2015, which brought “incredible energy and strategic focus to the next phase of the life of the Hutch,” McIlwain said.
Helping guide the Hutch in that next phase will be McIlwain, Christine Gregoire, new board chair and former governor of Washington state, the 13 other current trustees, and the five new board members announced today, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon Web Services Vice President Mike Clayville.
“Satya has a way of thinking about what are those scale points, what are the things that you need to have aligned to take good research and build it out into a much broader platform for opportunity,” McIlwain said. “He will bring a way of thinking about how we overcome challenges to get to that scale and apply this to curing cancer and other diseases.”
McIlwain has a passion for innovation, but the search for cancer cures is personal as well. His mother is a breast cancer survivor. After surviving kidney and prostate cancer, his father died last year when melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — spread to his brain. He was 77.
The doctors in Florida, where McIlwain’s dad lived, tried treating him with Keytruda, a new class of drug that Gilliland helped bring to market when he was senior vice president at Merck Research Laboratories. A type of immunotherapy, Keytruda made headlines in December 2015 as the drug used to treat President Jimmy Carter’s melanoma. It has been shown to shrink tumors in about a third of patients with metastatic melanoma, a major improvement in a cancer with a particularly grim prognosis.
Although the treatment didn’t succeed in his father’s case, McIlwain came away from that loss deeply appreciative of the care his dad received — and with an even greater resolve to find cures.
“My first reaction was just incredible appreciation for how caring people are when you or your family are in a time of need, from Gary and [Fred Hutch Deputy Director and Executive Vice President Dr.] Fred [Appelbaum] to the nurse, Cindy, in Florida, who provided the time and care for my family as we were going through the process with my dad,” he said. “While some of these amazing new cures were not able to save his life, the era that we’re going into is incredible. It increased my resolve to take an active and supporting role in finding these cures so that more people can be cured.”
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.