As a young man, Dr. Gregory Foltz gave up a dream of becoming a concert pianist to pit himself against a mysterious, devastating disease that took a friend’s daughter.
His journey from music to medical school led him to become a neurosurgeon and researcher, and ultimately to found and direct the Ben & Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at Swedish Medical Center.
When he vanquished brain cancer, he told friends, he would return to his first love, the piano.
As it turned out, Dr. Foltz didn’t get that chance. He died June 27, a few weeks after turning 50.
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In his five years as director of the Ivy Center, Dr. Foltz dedicated himself to each patient, taking their stories with him to help build a powerhouse research laboratory. He cajoled often-competitive institutions to cooperate, and raised nearly $14 million to target a relatively rare cancer that had attracted little attention from researchers or funders.
“We really have built an infrastructure that’s unique in the world,” Dr. Foltz said a few days before he died at his Seattle home, weak from pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.
“We’ve created a huge community of researchers and institutions that are now working together in the Pacific Northwest, and that has been quite satisfying to see for me personally,” he said. “I’m happy and content with what we’ve accomplished. I’ve had the opportunity to live a great life.”
Gregory Foltz was born in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in tiny Rochester, Ill. Early in life, he learned the value and necessity of cooperation and collaboration and applied those principles to his single-minded search for a brain-cancer cure.
Over and over, wherever he went, Dr. Foltz told how the disease devastated whole families, convincing typically competitive researchers and medical centers that they could work together — just this once — to help brain-cancer patients.
Over the years, Dr. Foltz and his stories helped bring together disparate institutions, including the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and medical centers and biotech companies around the state. One by one, he worked around institutional barriers such as financial considerations and intellectual property rights.
“I have never let any of those concerns stop me from moving ahead,” Dr. Foltz said in a 2009 interview. “I think if you have a cause that inspires people to want to be a part of it, they will come up with solutions to those barriers.”
And they did.
Dr. Leroy Hood, ISB president, said Dr. Foltz was one of the first to realize the potential of tailoring treatments to the patient.
“He was a superb physician and at the same time an accomplished scientist — and he used both these talents to forge always-improving treatments for his individual patients,” Hood said. “In more than 50 years of dealing with physicians, I have never met his match. He will be forever enshrined in the memories of all who knew him well.”
Dr. Rod Hochman, former CEO of Swedish Medical Center, said he turned to Dr. Foltz for advice after his brother was diagnosed with glioblastoma. “He was an exceptional human being … a doctor’s doctor,” said Hochman, who now heads Providence Health & Services. “He was completely focused on serving patients and was driven by his quest to cure brain cancer.”
Dr. Foltz graduated from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in 1995, and later was chief resident in neurological surgery at the University of Washington. He was co-director of the neurogenomics research lab at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.
His chosen foe — primary brain cancer, most often an aggressive type called glioblastoma — strikes about 20,000 annually in the U.S., and few patients live beyond one to three years.
Dr. Foltz’s first big grant came from the Ben & Catherine Ivy Foundation, now in Scottsdale, Ariz. Ben Ivy, a financial and estate planner in Palo Alto who grew up in Everett, died from glioblastoma in 2005.
Catherine Ivy, who met Dr. Foltz at a meeting, was impressed with his innovative approach to treatment and finding a cure.
Over the years, the foundation she heads has given $4.75 million to Dr. Foltz’s research.
“The project has just exploded,” she said. “That’s really because of Greg, his vision, who he is. Greg has tough shoes to fill — not only his dedication to patients, but his research and his charisma.”
Dr. Foltz famously took a personal interest in each patient, sharing his mobile-phone number and meeting families. “He made it about the patient,” Ivy said.
And he made it about cooperation, she said. “People will say they’ll collaborate just to get the funding, but they won’t do it. Because of Greg, they all communicate. It’s because of him that it’s worked.”
Over the years, as Dr. Foltz and his colleagues learned that brain cancer is highly variable from patient to patient, they developed ways to test new treatments. Today, after mapping the genetics of each patient’s tumor, his laboratory creates a small army of mice with that tumor — surrogate patients, he called them — to test different drugs for a personalized approach.
“I very much believe in this platform as being the key to success in the future,” Dr. Foltz said in his last interview. He said he was confident in the center’s future under his hand-picked successor, Dr. Charles Cobbs, a national expert in brain-cancer treatment and research, and heartened that the other scientists there have said they plan to continue their projects.
Ten clinical trials and research projects now under way at the center include a personalized brain-cancer vaccine in the final stages of approval, Dr. Foltz said.
“We’re excited about that — that we’ve been able to bring new treatments to patients, so when I see a new patient, I’m able to say there’s hope,” he said. “We’re not doing the research so we can save lives 20 years from now, 10 years from now. We wanted to save lives today.”
Days away from death, he said his illness had reinforced his belief that cancer research must focus on treatments that patients can use right away.
“I wish that there were people working on my disease, like I am working on glioblastoma,” he said.
Diagnosed late last year, Dr. Foltz was being cared for at his home, where he lived with his wife, Dr. Luba Foltz, and two young children.
He is also survived by his father, David Foltz of Rochester, Ill., mother, Shay Malcolm of Arizona, and his extended family, Dr. Michael Beatty and Ann Beatty of Edwardsville, Ill., Cynthia Seymour of Washington, D.C., and Michael Beatty Jr. of New York City.
Family, friends and people in the brain-cancer community will gather later this month at Benaroya Hall to celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. Foltz and the Ivy Center.
Donations may be made to the Greg Foltz, M.D., Endowed Directorship at the Ben & Catherine Ivy Center at Swedish Medical Center (206-386-3527 or https://community.swedish.org/dr-greg-foltz).
The Seattle Brain Cancer Walk, which Dr. Foltz helped start six years ago and raised more than $1 million last year, will be held Sept. 21. For more information: www.braincancerwalk.org.
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @costrom