Levi Garraway: A passion for purpose

Levi Garraway has officially started his new leadership role as Roche’s Chief Medical Officer. Like many who pursue a career in healthcare, his journey into medicine is a personal one.

It’s the standard question that every applicant to medical school must answer: Why do you want to be a doctor?

“When you’re a young applicant, you try to come up with some original way to answer that question,” Garraway said. “But ultimately, the answer always comes down to wanting to help people — to alleviate suffering from disease.”

Now he has the chance of a lifetime pursue that answer.

Our newest head of Product Development (PD) and chief medical officer (CMO) knows that he has big shoes to fill. Garraway is replacing Sandra Horning, Roche's veteran PD head and CMO who is retiring after a decade spent helping to shepherd 15 lifesaving medicines to patients.

A promise to people

But Garraway knows the job goes beyond overseeing the development of effective and safe new medicines. As he explains, it’s also a responsibility to people: to the hundreds of thousands of patients in our clinical trials around the globe; the tens of thousands of doctors and staff who look after them; and the many thousands of Roche and Genentech experts who tirelessly seek the next-generation medicines needed by patients.

That mission involves clinical scientists; regulatory, medical affairs, safety and quality experts; the operations capabilities at all the sites around the world where we conduct clinical trials; and the technology and biometrics analysts who bring it all together.

“Every day, we can help build the bridges that allow new technology and scientific discoveries to reduce human suffering," Garraway said. “Oncology has led the way in much of this. Now we are bringing those modalities and approaches to patients with neurodegenerative diseases, immunologic diseases, infectious diseases, diseases that lead to blindness, and other areas where we can make the biggest impact for patients.”

That perspective on the scope of the job also exemplifies the reasons he got into medicine in the first place.

A sense of purpose

A career in science seemed a life certainty for Garraway for as long as he can remember — inspired in part by a mother with a doctorate in mathematics and a father who was a scientist and professor in plant biology at The Ohio State University near their home in Columbus, Ohio in the United States.

“My father was an especially powerful influence,” Garraway said, recalling how his dad’s passionate interest in the natural world around him enriched his life, and informed his faith. “My dad is also partly responsible for my fanaticism for American college football,” Garraway added with a laugh. “So maybe there’s some genetic component responsible for that, too.”

Ultimately, Garraway chose a life helping people, not plants. He credits this influence to two uncles who were physicians, including a namesake pioneering cardiac surgeon who performed the first operation to implant a lifesaving defibrillator in a patient. It was a potent example of the impact a career in medicine could have on improving and even saving human lives. And it helped inspire Garraway to continue at Harvard towards a medical degree in addition to a Ph.D. in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology.

Personal inspiration

Garraway’s early research interests lay in infectious disease, but a shocking mid-semester phone call would alter that focus profoundly. Back in Ohio, his father had been diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer.

“It was the mid-1990’s,” Garraway said, “and I remember thinking, surely with all these recent remarkable advances in cancer biology, there must be a path to helping Dad.”

Garraway started spending his extra nights combing through journals in the medical school library, looking for connections between the most current understanding of cancer and some new therapeutic direction that might help address his father’s disease.

But to his frustration, what he found was two separate worlds, one of pure research, another of clinical medicine, and almost no link between them.

“That just seemed — unacceptable,” Garraway says. “So, I set about in my career to figure out, how do we bring the most promising research into a space where they can help the patients that need them as soon as possible?”

Garraway deployed genomic testing technology that underpinned a company called Foundation Medicine, now part of Roche, which helps doctors select personalised medicines for cancer patients.

What started as a personal project soon forced Garraway to master a diverse skill set. Over the next decades he wore the hats of clinician, teacher, biomedical researcher, project leader, team builder and award-winning innovator, helping deploy a new genomic testing technology that accelerated the idea of personalised medicine.

That technology would underpin a company called Foundational Medicine (FMI). Now part of Roche, FMI combines a genomic platform and therapeutic insights to help doctors select personalised medicines for cancer patients, and researchers imagine new and effective therapies.

Unfortunately, it was too late to find a new therapy to help his dad. “It rips your soul apart to watch a loved one go through that kind of suffering,” Garraway said. “So if I could do something to make sure that somebody else’s dad or mom or spouse or child doesn’t have to go through that suffering — that’s a motivating life path.”

The opportunity ahead

Garraway calls working at a company with the capacity of Roche and Genentech “a dream opportunity.” And the chance to work with a team of highly talented and similarly motivated people was a big part of the appeal.

“I know a lot of other people share my story,” Garraway said. “Many people have watched loved ones suffer from disease. That motivates us all to something bigger than just a job. It gives us the responsibility, and also the capability and the inspiration to do good by helping others in a way that only we can.”

Garraway said that it’s especially exciting to be doing this work now, in a time of unprecedented biomedical innovation and possibility.

“People talk about the power of hope,” Garraway said. “As hard as it was to lose my father, I didn’t truly understand what hope was until I had experienced its opposite —despair. That insight, and the desire to bring the hope offered by medical science to as many patients as possible, continues to beckon me forward when I wake up each morning.”

Garraway is excited to help galvanise the talents of his new global team as they work toward bringing new reasons for hope to even more people around the world.

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