As a practicing oncologist, Stuart Lutzker had experience sharing difficult news. But one day in 2004, he faced a particularly daunting task: telling his patients at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey that he was leaving them to join Genentech.
Stuart did his best to be reassuring as he introduced his patients one at a time to the doctor who would take his place. After a few minutes he was surprised to realize that his patients were actually reassuring him.
“Everyone sort of said to me the same thing: ‘Dr. Lutzker, it’s been great having you as my doctor. I’m sure this other doctor will do a great job taking care of me. Now, please go make me a new medicine.’”
Those conversations helped Stuart realize that, in joining Genentech’s search for new cancer medicines, he was putting his unique combination of scientific and medical expertise to the best possible use for patients.
“This was the place where I thought I could bring together all the skills I had developed through all my training and academic pursuits,” Stuart says. “It was the hardest, but ultimately best, career decision I have ever made.”
To Be (or Not To Be) a Doctor
Growing up, Stuart knew he wanted to be a doctor. His mother had severe asthma and other health problems, and he came to appreciate how important doctors were to her.
“They were the people she went to in order to feel better and who she trusted with her health. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty powerful thing.’ And that really stuck with me as being something rewarding to do with your life.”
“It’s actually quite an interesting dual existence. Learning to be a doctor and treating patients gave me a sense of immediate gratification, while working in the lab gave me a sense of gratification on a much different timeline.”
So Stuart started college with the idea of being a physician, but soon discovered his love of science — especially molecular biology and human genetics. Stuart began to think seriously about pursuing a Ph.D. and a basic science career studying human diseases in the lab. In that way, he figured, he could still help patients by laying the biological foundations for a better understanding of human diseases, and potentially better treatments and prevention. But it was difficult to give up the idea of being a physician and interacting with patients. Stuart put off the need to choose between medicine and research after learning it was possible to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree.
“It’s actually quite an interesting dual existence. Learning to be a doctor and treating patients gave me a sense of immediate gratification, while working in the lab gave me a sense of gratification on a much different timeline,” Stuart says with a grin.
A Dual Existence in the Clinic and the Lab
Stuart spent the next two decades juggling his two passions. After earning an M.D. and then a Ph.D. in biochemistry, he went back to the clinic for a residency and fellowship in internal medicine and oncology. Then he completed a post-doctoral research program studying some of the fundamental genetic drivers of cancer.
Stuart continued his pursuit of both fields by taking a faculty position as an oncologist and researcher at a newly established National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in his home state of New Jersey. While there, he split his time between running a laboratory focused on dissecting the molecular causes of cancer and taking care of patients in a busy lung cancer clinic, also enrolling some of them on clinical trials.
During Stuart’s years in New Jersey in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there weren’t as many options to treat cancer as there are today. No targeted therapies had yet been approved, and immunotherapy hadn’t even emerged as an option.
“Back then, to be quite frank, most people died within a year when they had metastatic lung cancer. It’s a different landscape today. That got me interested in clinical trials to test new options for my patients.” Stuart participated in the clinical trials that eventually led to the approval of the first EGFR kinase inhibitor in lung cancer. It was this experience that made him realize the powerful impact of targeted therapies and the central role that industry plays in discovering and developing these medicines in the clinic.
Moving from Academia to Industry
After seven years in New Jersey, Genentech asked Stuart to come to California to work on the clinical development of cancer medicines that were just entering into first-in-human testing. At first, he didn’t think he would feel comfortable in industry, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that it would give him the opportunity to help patients in new and meaningful ways.
“I came out to Genentech for an interview and I couldn’t help but be excited by the people and the atmosphere which resembled more of an academic setting. Everyone was so smart and focused on advancing medicines for unmet medical needs. More than anything, I saw that I had a real opportunity to combine my expertise as a physician and researcher.”
After his emotional goodbye with his former patients—thankful to have their support, and excited for new opportunities—Stuart joined Genentech as a Medical Director. He soon found that his dual background gave him a unique perspective on bridging the gap between basic and clinical science. And as Stuart settled in, he realized that he was not only welcome to offer that perspective—it was expected of him.
“What would happen is we would have these team meetings and I would go up to the research person afterwards and say, ‘What do you think of this? Maybe you want to try this.’ And they'd say, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting idea. I wish you'd said that during the meeting.’”
Stuart soon discovered the thrill of learning that a medicine he had helped bring into the clinic was providing clinical benefit to patients. He remembers calling physicians who were testing a targeted cancer therapy and hearing from one that a patient who had never responded to any other therapy was showing clear signs of benefit. Soon there was a second and then a third patient, all having benefited.
“Looking back, those were some of the most exciting days I have ever had in my career.”
Thirteen years after joining Genentech, Stuart is proud to have contributed to five approved Genentech cancer medicines, with three more in late-stage clinical testing. As Vice President of Oncology Exploratory Clinical Development, he oversees the early clinical stages of Genentech’s oncology pipeline. He is no longer a practicing oncologist seeing patients, but still uses his medical acumen and his research skills to impact the lives of people with cancer, and particularly those who still don’t have the treatments they need.
“You know, that's the thing we're here for. We have great science, one of the largest R&D budgets in the industry, and highly skilled and dedicated people. And we have a huge responsibility to patients to make them a new medicine.”