In conversation with Tom Lynch, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

From chief scientific officer of Bristol Myers Squibb to running one of the biggest cancer research organizations in the world is a major career shift and challenge at the best of times.

If you’ve been anywhere near the news recently, you’ll know we’re not living in the best of times, but in the worst of times, and times that have hit the U.S. hard. When COVID-19 really started to get bad in the U.S. is when Tom Lynch, M.D., took up his role as president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. This, as he explains, made the start of his tenure look very different to how he'd imagined.

Three months down the line, FierceBiotech Senior Editor Ben Adams spoke to Lynch about running an oncology-focused organization during an unprecedented pandemic and lockdown as well as what it’s like moving from the life sciences industry into a less corporate role. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ben Adams: How different is running Fred Hutch compared to being CSO of a major biopharma? What are some of the bigger differences?

Tom Lynch: The Hutch is truly one of the world’s great research institutions. The culture here is notable for independent, freethinking scientists who are encouraged to focus on hard problems, knowing there may not be answers.

Translational research and the drug development that results start with great fundamental science. The Hutch and its peer institutions are the places where these fundamental discoveries are made. Biotech and pharma are then able to pursue the development of therapeutic and preventative approaches based on the initial breakthroughs that happen mostly in university and medical school labs. I’ve seen that relentless pursuit in action during my brief time here as the researchers at the center turn their focus to COVID-19.

BA: You took up this role, and then the whole world was hit by a pandemic. This has really hit cancer research funding and taken so much focus away from oncology, with many trials hit as well. How are you managing this on the Fred Hutch side, and how do you run an org like this at such an unprecedented time?

TL: First, as a newcomer, I’ve been impressed by the depth of expertise in infectious disease at the Hutch. In retrospect, it’s obvious; what many people don’t appreciate is that there’s a strong connection between infectious disease and cancer. Fred Hutch researchers have been studying viruses for as long as they’ve been studying cancer because cancer and our bodies’ defenses against infection are closely linked.

Our researchers have also had prominent roles identifying links between HPV and cancer and helping us better understand, treat and prevent HIV. Many of our scientists were able to quickly refocus their expertise in HIV vaccines and virology, epidemiology, biostatistics and even basic science to COVID-19 work. Our team is doing everything from tracking the virus's spread, developing diagnostic tests and therapeutics, designing and conducting vaccine trials, and working to prevent future outbreaks.

That said, cancer remains core to our mission, and we have never stopped working on finding better treatments and cures for cancer.

With regard to managing our organization through this crisis, our approach has been driven by a few core principles:

  • Maintaining the health and safety of our staff and the communities we serve
  • Relying on data, science and guidance of community health experts
  • Maintaining the ongoing commitment to our mission of curing cancer and related diseases

I’m going to expand upon those principles in reverse order.

First, as you may know, my background and expertise is in oncology—lung cancer specifically and advancing cures of solid tumors. For every important decision I’ve had to make in my career, I always think about what’s best for patients. If you're a cancer patient right now, cancer is the most important issue you're facing. You need Fred Hutch researchers to continue working incredibly hard to search for new ways of understanding cancer and treating cancer. We haven’t let up on that commitment.

Sadly, like other institutions, we had to pause many of our clinical trial efforts when the pandemic hit in order to maintain the safety of our patients and our staff, but the good news is the low level of prevalence of COVID-19 in our community means the data say we can carefully start ramping those efforts back up.

Second, since the beginning of this crisis, we’ve continually relied on science and data to determine how to operate and how to safely bring people back to our campus. That includes scientific findings and data from our own researchers as well as business leaders, public health experts and elected officials. As a side note—I’ve been incredibly impressed by the level of collaborative leadership across sectors and how leaders in Seattle and across Washington state are stepping in and working together to share the latest data and find solutions. I truly believe this collaboration is the root of the relatively low numbers of community spread—but we’re still in the early innings of this game and have a long way to go until we have sufficient understanding of how this virus operates and how to stop it.

BA: Has Fred Hutch specifically set up any units or trials to focus on COVID-19?

TL: Yes, and I’m excited about our plans to open a COVID-19 Clinical Research Center later this summer. This will be a standalone, self-contained building housing a clinical research space on the Fred Hutch campus, designed to run COVID-19 clinical trials. We are looking to partner with other healthcare providers, research institutes and the pharmaceutical/biotech industry to test novel interventions to treat and prevent COVID-19 and plan to host phase 1-3 clinical trials for COVID-19 positive patients (interventional and observational trials). Additionally, we hope to increase the availability of clinical samples for the scientific community.

Shorter term, we’ve launched studies in our nearby community to help us understand the prevalence of COVID-19. This includes a study involving our employees to track the prevalence of the disease on the Fred Hutch campus. We’re relying on that data along with the latest scientific information to help us gauge when it’s safe to increase density on our campus.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is our focus on safety. Like most organizations, we’ve had to dial back the number of employees on-site to just those who must be on campus to do their jobs. Over the last month or so, we’ve adjusted those restrictions based on the science and data, especially for our lab-based employees and faculty, but much of our workforce is still working from home and likely will be for a while.

It’s been a tremendous operational puzzle to solve, and I know my peers are facing the same challenges. It appears we’ll continue dialing up the number of employees over the summer, but we’ll always be using science and data as the guide and watching the community prevalence numbers.

BA: Are your long-term plans at Fred Hutch, or would you be tempted back into a full-time CSO type role at a biotech/pharma company?

TL: I’m only a few months into my new job! Granted, the situation isn’t exactly unfolding as I imagined—I didn’t anticipate responding to a pandemic—but I have to say, I really enjoy being at Fred Hutch and don’t see myself leaving here anytime soon.