Dr. D. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, announced Tuesday his plans to step down in 2020.
His accomplishments during his time at the helm of Fred Hutch are numerous, say Fred Hutch board leaders, and he leaves the Hutch in a strong position for the future. Since 2015, the center has grown and diversified its faculty, increased its already-strong federal grant funding, quadrupled its endowment, and forged new internal and external research collaborations, among other achievements.
Gilliland, who has been serving in this role since January 2015, will continue leading the Hutch during the search for his successor, which is moving forward under the leadership of a diverse search committee that includes trustees, faculty and administrative leaders. Gilliland will become president and director emeritus after ensuring a smooth transition to the new leader.
“Gary has had incredible achievements in setting the Hutch’s strategy, growing our teams and expanding our resources,” said Matthew McIlwain, chair of the Fred Hutch board of trustees. “Although the board hoped Gary could remain center director longer, we understand his decision and are confident in the strengths of our faculty, staff and leadership teams across both science and administration. Gary has done an outstanding job of advancing our mission and preparing Fred Hutch for the opportunities ahead, and we are delighted that he will remain affiliated with the organization.”
Most important, thanks to Gilliland’s leadership, Hutch scientists are well-positioned to continue making the lifesaving discoveries for which the center is known worldwide, said Kathy Surace-Smith, who will chair the board of trustees beginning in June 2020.
“Gary has really set the stage for the Hutch’s future,” Surace-Smith said. “Throughout his time as president and director, Hutch scientists have made extraordinary discoveries in cutting-edge fields as diverse as cancer immunotherapy and data science. Thanks to his outstanding leadership and vision, the Hutch’s top-notch researchers have the resources and infrastructure they need to continue doing what they do best for years to come.”
Gilliland, a blood cancer physician-scientist by training, is the fifth Fred Hutch president and director since the center opened its doors in 1975.
Before his arrival to the Hutch, Gilliland had built a global reputation for his seminal scientific discoveries in leukemia biology at Harvard Medical School and for his leadership in academia and industry. Among his past leadership roles, Gilliland was director of the leukemia program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, a senior vice president and global oncology franchise head at Merck & Co., and a vice dean and vice president of precision medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He has earned numerous prestigious awards and honors for his work.
Being chosen to lead Fred Hutch was, for Gilliland, a culmination of that long and distinguished career — “like coming home,” he said in a November 2014 profile when the Hutch announced his hire. “Everything I’ve done in my career has pointed here.”
In a message to Fred Hutch employees announcing his decision, Gilliland said, “Leading Fred Hutch has been the high point of my career.”
“The center is in an excellent position, and I am confident that now is the right time to open the door for that new leader,” Gilliland wrote.
As president and director, Gilliland’s responsibilities have included setting the strategic direction of Fred Hutch and overseeing centerwide initiatives. He also directs the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium, which includes the Hutch, the UW schools of Medicine and Public Health, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Seattle Children’s.
In these roles, Gilliland has sought to reinforce the Hutch’s longstanding commitment to scientific excellence, Surace-Smith said.
“The Hutch’s culture of high-quality, bold research — all aimed at improving and saving lives — is what makes this institution stand out,” she said. “In all of Gary’s leadership initiatives at the Hutch, he’s been guided by the question: ‘How can we advance the best research to help patients?’”
One way Gilliland has done so is by forging connections between researchers in different disciplines. Among Gilliland’s major initiatives was the creation of the Hutch’s Integrated Research Centers, or IRCs, which promote collaboration among researchers across campus and throughout the Consortium on high-impact, innovative projects. The Hutch currently has three IRCs, which focus on immunotherapy, pathogen-associated cancers and data science.
The creation of new infrastructure and resources to advance cancer immunotherapy research has been a particular area of emphasis during Gilliland’s tenure at the Hutch. A notable example is 2016’s opening of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic at SCCA, a facility on the Hutch campus dedicated to providing immunotherapies to cancer patients on clinical trials and enabling research to make these strategies work better for more patients.
Gilliland also was instrumental in catalyzing the Hutch’s lease of Seattle’s historic Lake Union Steam Plant, which the Hutch is now remodeling to advance, in particular, high-impact research at the intersection of immunology, data science and computational biology.
Fred Hutch Chief Operating Officer Steve Stadum has partnered closely with Gilliland on Steam Plant and other scientific and administrative initiatives to advance Hutch science.
"The Steam Plant project, and the science it will enable, is just one example of Gary’s ability to be opportunistic and act with urgency in a way that is consistent with the center’s goals and where the cutting edge of science is headed in the next five, 10, 20 years or more," Stadum said. "And he has a gift for bringing people together to do more collaboratively than they could alone."
For years, Fred Hutch has consistently received more funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other research organization of its type. That strength has grown under Gilliland, who has overseen a 48% increase the institution’s grant funding and hired dozens of new faculty members.
Meanwhile, Gilliland has set the Hutch on a course of diversifying its funding sources and enhancing the center’s relationships with industry and other outside collaborators.
“In this way, Gary has helped us to invest in world-class investigators, modern facilities and innovative team research — enabling science far into the future,” McIlwain said. “This has also helped Hutch scientists translate discoveries to patients more rapidly and advance their research in powerful new ways, thanks to new-found synergies with tech companies and other nontraditional collaborators.”
Under Gilliland’s leadership, there has been significant growth in the Hutch’s endowment, which is critical since endowments represent a sustainable, dependable resource for funding future breakthroughs.
The center also now has 27 endowed faculty chairs, compared to three when Gilliland joined the Hutch. Endowed chairs help recruit and retain the best scientific talent, and they provide those scientists with the long-term sustainable funding and freedom they need to take potentially high-impact risks. Gilliland has ensured gender parity in these chairs as part of his commitment to advancing Hutch research by promoting diversity and inclusion in science and leadership.
The scientific teams that Gilliland has helped to build and strengthen at Fred Hutch through these and other efforts will long outlast his tenure as president and director. Those teams’ accomplishments — whether made since 2015 or still to come — are a point of pride for Gilliland as he reflects on his time at the Hutch.
In his announcement to the Hutch community, 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.”
Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.
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