In his 25th year as a physician and researcher working at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dr. Bruce Clurman is getting ready to step into his newest role — executive vice president and deputy director of the Hutch.
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland announced Clurman’s appointment, effective Nov. 1, on Tuesday. Clurman will step into the position vacated by outgoing Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Mark Groudine, who has served in those roles for 11 and 19 years, respectively. Groudine will continue to lead his basic research laboratory and will serve as special advisor to the director’s office. Clurman will work alongside Fred Hutch’s other executive vice president and deputy director, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, who has held that position since 2013. Clurman will also serve on the board of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner.
The leadership change comes at a pivotal moment for the Hutch, Gilliland said, one that is largely centered around the need to boost the center’s ability to conduct team science and collaborate more effectively across scientific disciplines. Clurman has been instrumental in orchestrating the Hutch’s recently completed five-year strategic plan, Gilliland said. He has also led the coordination and planning for Fred Hutch’s Integrated Research Centers, new research groups underway that will unite scientists and clinicians from diverse focus areas to attack major problems facing cancer and other diseases.
Clurman’s leadership of these new groups is exactly the type of guidance the Hutch needs as the cancer research center increases its collaborative efforts in pursuit of new treatments and cures, Gilliland said.
“We recognize that we need to have more team-oriented science to address some of the biggest problems in the biology and therapy of human disease,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who we could bring in, either internally or externally, that can do what Bruce is able to do, because of the history that he has here and the scientific credibility that he has. He’s respected across all of our different, very broadly-based disciplines of science.”
The announcement follows those of other recent hires at the Hutch. Last Monday, Dr. Nancy Davidson, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was announced as the incoming director of the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and president and executive director of SCCA. She will also be professor and head of the Division of Medical Oncology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Also last week, Fred Hutch immunotherapy researcher Dr. David Maloney was announced as the first medical director for cellular immunotherapy at the Hutch and the SCCA’s new Immunotherapy Clinic.
For Clurman, the transition seems a logical next step in a career built at the Hutch, working across disciplines as both a transplantation physician, seeing patients with blood cancers at SCCA, and as a basic scientist, delving deep into the molecular cascade of steps that allows cancerous cells to grow and divide unchecked.
But it’s only in the past few years that Clurman decided to step outside these two different but equally gratifying sides of his job, he said, and take a broader look at how he could serve the advancement of cancer research overall. That realization led him to take on other leadership roles in the past year and to work with Gilliland and the rest of Fred Hutch leadership to help craft the recently completed five-year strategic plan and to dive into the creation of the Integrated Research Centers.
“As I started thinking about ways to extend myself beyond my own work, it was just natural for me to want to put that effort and energy here, because I couldn’t imagine wanting to work like this anywhere else,” Clurman said. “Gary has an incredibly bold vision which I’m completely aligned with and I think that people are really behind, but while we want to continue to support fundamental science, we also need to change the way we do some of our work to accomplish that … The opportunities are unprecedented but there’s also an urgency to accelerate our progress.”
Clurman’s transition was natural in another sense, too — he’ll be filling the shoes of Groudine, the researcher who helped him launch his career at the Hutch and who has been a valued mentor ever since, Clurman said. Clurman joined the Hutch in 1991 as a senior fellow in oncology working in Groudine’s lab, after completing an M.D./Ph.D. program at Cornell University Medical College and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and internal medicine training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he overlapped in his training with Gilliland.
Groudine was a selfless and nurturing mentor to Clurman from the start, the researcher said, helping Clurman start projects that launched the junior researcher’s own career at the Hutch without necessarily benefiting the mentor directly.
“He just wanted you to do the science that you thought was the most important and that you were most interested in,” Clurman said. “He’s been an unbelievable mentor and role model for me … He’s shown me how to lead by respecting people and by being very straightforward and transparent.”
Groudine’s selfless nature and generosity of time and resources is by no means unique to his relationship with his trainee, Gilliland said. It’s embedded in how the biologist has guided the Hutch in his decades of leadership, first as director of the Basic Sciences Division, from 1995 to 2005, and as deputy director since 1997 and as executive vice president of the Hutch since 2005. Groudine also served as acting president and director of the Hutch during two interim periods, in 2010 and, most recently, in 2014, before Gilliland was appointed.
Groudine works tirelessly behind the scenes to advance Hutch research without a thought to receiving credit or accolades, Gilliland said.
“There’s nothing about him that has to do with power, it’s about what’s the best for the Hutch,” Gilliland said. “In some ways, for me, he’s the heart and soul of the Hutch.”
Gilliland pointed out that Groudine was one of the advocates for Clurman’s transition into his old role — planning for and supporting his successor in a way that Gilliland said is unusual in high-level leaders and which further speaks to Groudine’s generous nature.
Groudine himself is happy for his former trainee and current friend and colleague, he said.
“I am very pleased that Bruce has taken on this responsibility, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that he is successful,” Groudine said. “I would not have considered stepping down as deputy director if I did not believe the center is in great hands — those of Bruce, Gary and the rest of the leadership team.”
Like many other researchers at the Hutch, Clurman has bridged the lab bench and the clinic for his whole career. Both aspects of his job have been integral in how he approaches cancer research and treatment, he said. When he was first looking for training opportunities in the early 1990s, the Hutch stood out because of its stellar reputation in bone marrow transplantation, Clurman’s clinical area of expertise.
“The Hutch was the only game in town at the time,” he said.
When he joined Groudine’s lab for his fellowship, though, he found that beyond the transplantation program itself, the entire center fostered respectful collaboration between research and clinical practice.
“Back then the Hutch was much smaller … as a result of that, there was always this very close integration between very smart basic scientists and really excellent clinicians and clinical researchers,” Clurman said. “That integrated mutual respect grew out of working together. I found it to be an incredibly unique environment and it was a really wonderful environment to train in.”
Even after 20 years as an attending transplant physician, Clurman still speaks of transplantation — a technique first developed at Fred Hutch in the 1970s — with reverence.
“Transplant’s a remarkable area of oncology,” he said. “You have opportunities to cure people of a disease that’s otherwise not curable.”
Clurman has viewed cancer and its treatments through different lenses at different stages of his life, he said. When he first started seeing patients in need of bone marrow transplants, the treatment course was still demanding and toxic enough that the majority of the patients he and his colleagues could treat were fairly young.
As an early-career researcher and clinician, seeing those young patients uproot their lives and come to Seattle — often with their children and spouses in tow — in pursuit of a cure was very moving, Clurman said. And when he later had his own children, he came to have a new appreciation for his patients’ experiences.
Particularly poignant for him were the transplant patients who were parents — and had only a slim chance of living, he remembers. Back then, “some of these young patients had a 10 percent chance of survival — but if they were in that 10 percent, kids had their parents back,” he said. “[Transplantation] is very intellectually challenging and satisfying. It’s devastating when you can’t make a difference and it’s incredibly rewarding when you can. You can’t help but feel the highs and lows that your patients do.”
Another, earlier experience also guided Clurman in his career. When he was enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. graduate program at Memorial Sloan Kettering, his father was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. He was treated at the same hospital where Clurman was training, and he ultimately died of his disease.
Watching a loved one going through cancer and the associated toxic treatments was horrible, Clurman said, but it just drove him more strongly in his goal to help patients and to discover better treatments and cures.
“It really had a major impact on my sense of what it was to have a life-threatening or incurable cancer, and what treatment really did to patients,” Clurman said, his voice trailing off.
Gilliland picked up the thread of his colleague’s story, describing their experience working together in the transplantation wards at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the late 1980s. Working with transplant patients is not exactly like a war, Gilliland said, but there are parallels to being in the literal trenches.
“There’s something about that experience where people are dying … that’s a very tough place to be and to cope with. Having worked together in a space like that, it does bring you together in a unique way,” Gilliland said about his past work with Clurman and why he’s so glad to be working more closely with him once again, decades later.
“It’s a luxury to have a highly experienced colleague that I’ve known for a long time to work with,” he said.
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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.