In April I spotted molecular biologist Lynn Matrisian, PhD, at a luncheon following the Rally for Medical Research in Washington, DC, that took place in conjunction with the American Association for Cancer Research's Annual Meeting.
We had first talked in 2004 when Matrisian, then Chair of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center's Department of Cancer Biology, which she had founded, was serving her one-year term as AACR president, at the same time that two of her Vanderbilt colleagues—Harold Moses, MD, and David Johnson, MD—were presidents of the Association of American Cancer Institutes and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, respectively (OT, 5/25/04 issue).
Then in 2008 I interviewed her again when she was named to head NCI's Translational Research Group, a half-time commitment that brought her to Bethesda periodically for two years (OT, 4/10/08).
I had heard that she had left Vanderbilt to join the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) advocacy organization, and I was curious as to why, so we chatted briefly while standing on a buffet line, and I said I would follow up in a few months for the backstory.
When we talked last month, Matrisian had just completed a year and a half as Vice President of Scientific and Medical Affairs for the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based organization dedicated to research, patient support, community outreach, and advocacy for a cure for pancreatic cancer.
She was also days away from receiving her degree from an executive MBA program she had begun two years ago at Vanderbilt.
Coincidentally, that senior scientific position at PanCAN had been created at just about the same time she returned to the classroom as a student, and during the summer of 2011 she was contacted by a headhunter about the job.
Matrisian, who was also Ingram Professor of Cancer Research at Vanderbilt, explained that she had enrolled in business school because as a basic scientist she had little direct exposure to the real world of business and thought it important to increase her understanding, especially since the federal funding climate for science had soured.
She had not been actively seeking other employment opportunities at the time, she said, since her weekend MBA program had just started, but she thought the interview process might be good practical experience for the future. She said she was also somewhat surprised that she had been contacted since most of the job offers she had received in the past had been for cancer center director positions.
“When I was at NCI I gained a better understanding of the constraints of government and the budget crunch, and realized that research couldn't remain as dependent on federal support and that there are real opportunities in the private and philanthropy sectors to do something [else] passionately about cancer.”
End of MMPs
As a post-doc in Strasbourg, France, she had cloned a gene that was the first full-length complementary DNA (cDNA) for a member of the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) family-proteases that were then thought to be involved in cancer metastasis. Pharmaceutical companies became interested, and one used her cDNA to develop small molecule inhibitors that eventually were used in about a dozen Phase III clinical trials.
“The clinical trials failed miserably and were stopped,” she said. The field crashed, and she wanted to know what had gone wrong and how she, as a basic scientist, could be so wrong about MMPs.
In the earlier interview, Matrisian noted that when she was still at Vanderbilt, she would head down the hall to see medical oncologist Mace Rothenberg, MD, (profiled in OT's 1/25/09 issue and who later left the medical school to join Pfizer). He taught her about clinical trials, she said, and she in turn taught him about MMPs, and together they looked at what went wrong.
“There was a whole part of clinical care we [basic scientists] were never taught, and I became interested in clinical research to try to understand why something failed,” she said.
Special Assistant to the NCI Director
Together with William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins, she served as volunteer Co-chair of NCI's Translational Research Working Group, which led to her appointment as a Special Assistant to the NCI Director overseeing the Translational Research Group.
Matrisian said that during her time in Bethesda, one of the only visits she had from an advocacy organization was from PanCAN and she subsequently worked with the group back then. She also interacted with advocates while serving on the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Integration Program, and through AACR.
In 2011 she was celebrating her 25th anniversary at Vanderbilt: “I had already gotten my chair, and I began thinking that if I stayed in the same place, what new opportunities would I have? At one point you think your career will be endless and then you realize that you won't be doing this any more,” she said.
She said that when she got the call for the PanCAN job interview, she figured that if she was going to school to understand the world better, the least she could do would be to interview for the position, so she flew out to California to talk with its President and CEO, Julie Fleshman, JD, MBA.
Growth of PanCAN
Fleshman said during a telephone interview for this article that about two years ago PanCAN's organizational structure had grown considerably (from a single employee in 2000 to nearly 100 today) and there were ongoing discussions about how to determine the best structure to put in place for future growth. The decision was made to create two VP positions—one for community engagement, and donor, corporate, and volunteer relations; and one for scientific and medical affairs, including grants, scientific relations, and patient services programs.
“We wanted someone with an MD or PhD and with the background and experience to bring our research grants program to the next level—someone able to look at the national landscape and move the field forward faster,” she said, noting that she didn't have any particular person in mind, but when the headhunters submitted the early applicants she remembered Matrisian's name from her days at NCI.
Remarking that, “life is all about timing,” Fleshman said that Matrisian seemed the ideal person with the ideal background, and that the MBA program added yet another dimension.
“Lynn had a great interview, and you know when it's right and we both clicked. There was excitement from both sides, and we are both very positive people.”
Matrisian was interviewed in the summer and accepted the job in the fall. She had to transfer her grants, figure out who would succeed her as department head, and find mentors for her students. She also said she wanted to return to Nashville weekends until completing her MBA, and agreed to start in January 2012.
Reactions from Colleagues
When asked how her colleagues reacted to her shift in career, she said she was pleased with the feedback, that many told her that they could understand the change, thought the new job was a good fit, and saw it as part of her progression. “I was proud of what I had done [as a researcher], and it would have been fine to continue, but I've got an adventurous streak that looks for the next mountain to climb, and with the MBA I needed to find a new opportunity to do something [different] that I could be excited about and give it my best.”
Matrisian said her experience as AACR's “Mickey Mouse President”—since her term began at a meeting in Orlando in 2004 and ended in Anaheim in 2005—had also helped prepare her for the PanCAN job, and that incidentally, AACR administered PanCAN's grants program.
She has maintained an adjuvant appointment at Vanderbilt, and although she won't be doing bench research, she will continue doing scientific research related to data analysis, and with her advocacy colleagues has a paper scheduled for publication in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
One of her major responsibilities at PanCAN, she said, is to help the organization move closer to its goal of doubling the five-year survival rate for patients with pancreatic cancer to about 12 percent by 2020.
Next Acts in Oncology
This is the first article in a continuing series of profiles of prominent clinicians and researchers making significant, and often surprising, latter-stage career changes to seek new challenges that continue their contributions to the cancer community.