Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is stepping down — actually, stepping across a skybridge to his lab — to return to his first love: research.

After 3 ½ years in the top post, admits Corey, an internationally known expert on AIDS, herpes and vaccine development, he succumbed to envy. Surrounded by medical researchers intent on crucial, lifesaving work, he was beset by a sense of urgency to get back to his own immunotherapy research.

But he was busy in the way top administrators are: defining goals, recruiting talent and, in the case of “The Hutch,” creating partnerships and raising funds. All important tasks, but time was slipping away.

“For me, it was an interesting time,” said Corey, 67, in an interview Wednesday. “You feel you’ve done a good job as a scientific administrator and then you ask the question: Is this what you want to continue doing for the next five or seven years?”

Corey will officially step down June 30. Hutch Deputy Director Dr. Mark Groudine will serve as interim president and director while the board conducts a national search for Corey’s replacement.

Corey knows some people will think he’s crazy, stepping down from such a top job. “I guess I try to explain there’s a difference between success and significance,” he said. “I think the world looks at financial success or prestige success and thinks the CEO is the pinnacle. … But in the medical world, success in the halls of science — especially in this place — is, ‘What’s the impact you’ve had on humanity?’ ”

His sense of urgency mounts when he thinks about his brother-in-law, who died after cancer therapy brought on a devastating infectious disease for which there is now a cure. “If we had done that five years earlier, he’d still be alive.”

The die was cast when his son, who does research at Stanford, began extolling new technology in immunotherapy. “Dad, you’ve worked in this field and now this technology is there — do you really want to NOT do this?”

Corey is proud of all he did as Hutch president, and doesn’t discount the importance of his work to the survival of the institution.

“Nobody could have done a better job in identifying the strategic challenges” in funding and setting research priorities, said Board President Paula Reynolds. “Larry totally launched us — launched us in a different direction.”

Dwindling federal funds, Corey told the board, presented a formidable obstacle in an era when the pace of science was changing rapidly. Finding ways to bring cures more quickly from the lab to commercialization and to the clinic — where they could save lives — would be the challenge.

He also helped define The Hutch’s unique role in the fight against cancer, both inside and outside the institution, Reynolds said.

Reynolds credits Corey with helping break down the silos that isolated researchers, and instilling a sense of shared goals for the institution.

Corey, who has an easy laugh and an engaging personality, says he has an ability to get people to collaborate and see a vision together.

Now, the man who coined the slogan, “Miracles start in the lab,” is eager to get back to his own, just across Eastlake. In a brief tour, he looked around at the lab benches and microscopes with pride. “This is where we do science.”

Reynolds said the long-term challenges Corey has identified will take a new leader willing to “give us the runway we need” to carry out the strategic plan.
“We have to have someone who has a real scientific sensibility,” but also the leadership ability to run a large, complex organization, Reynolds said. “We want all of Larry’s talents and then some. What we want is everything.”

Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom