President and Director
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
2001 Nobel Prize in MedicineGlendale Community College, California
By Evelyn L. Kent
It’s no exaggeration to say that Leland Hartwell’s research and work will help save millions of lives and that it has advanced science immeasurably.
In 2001 Dr. Hartwell won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of several genes that control cell division. His research and findings provide important clues to understanding cancer, which is caused by abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth.
The discovery was the result of persistent research by a meticulous scientist who began his higher education at Glendale Community College in California.
A mediocre high school student, Dr. Hartwell found just what he needed at Glendale. “There I was very fortunate; I got some good teachers in physics and math, and I got a good counselor."
That counselor pushed him to transfer to the California Institute of Technology where he was surrounded by science and where his interests took off.
Before winning the Nobel, Dr. Hartwell decided to change course a bit and to focus on the applications of his research. "I became more interested in medicine and human disease,” Dr. Hartwell said. As such, in 1997 he became the president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “Since then my mind has been much taken with the question of ‘why aren't we making more improvement in the lives of patients with cancer?’” he said.
There he works with international groups and researchers on improving molecular diagnostics. The ultimate goal is to catch cancer very early.
He believes that being able to measure the quantities of thousands of proteins in the blood would yield very detailed information about the state of a person’s health. At present scientists know of only a few hundred. "The problem is that we don't know how to read those proteins, we don't know how to find them, and we don't know how to correlate them with human disease," Dr. Hartwell said. The center organizes an international effort to help find those diagnostic markers. "I think we're making progress," he said.
Dr. Hartwell’s experience in working with students was very different from his classroom experience at Glendale. He had teachers who singled him out and encouraged him. His experience as a teacher has been in the laboratory, where he encourages students to have their own interests and to share ideas with him. “I’m purely a mentor. I might ask the big question, but they have to dig in and find out about it,” he said.
Some students don't like it. Others love it. The simple truth is that Dr. Hartwell becomes absorbed by questions and their answers. “"I'm just obsessed with whatever I'm obsessed with. I'm interested in getting answers to a question," he said. "That's the only thing that motivates me."