In the summer of 1982, when I landed my first real job in public affairs at Roche, the multinational healthcare company, I was convinced that the best thing someone could do in life was to be a scientist and discover cures to the diseases that plagued humanity. If you were a professional communicator, like me, the best thing you could do was to be around scientists and help explain their work to the public. I’d landed my dream job, and it lasted for 35 years, introducing me to scores of brilliant scientists, enabling me to live on two continents, and sending me on adventures all over the world.
When my days working at Roche came to an end, I continued to seek opportunities to communicate about scientific discovery. Before long, the perfect project came my way. A phone call from out of the blue led to a creative collaboration with Dr. Tom Grogan, whose memoir of a life devoted to curing cancer is about to launch. It’s called “Chasing the Invisible: A Doctor’s Quest to Abolish the Last Unseen Cancer Cell.” His new website introduces Dr. Grogan, 74, as well as his book and backstory.
From a Simple Drawing to a Global Business
Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Dr. Grogan is an M.D. and pathologist. He invented an automated cancer diagnostics device that helps increase the speed, volume, and accuracy of personalized cancer detection and precise identification. His invention was born as a diagram he drew on a piece of paper and then jerry-rigged into a prototype in his garage in Tucson, Arizona. That seed grew into a biomedical startup company called Ventana Medical Systems Inc. Roche acquired Ventana in 2008, making it a key component of its Diagnostics Division and an important puzzle piece in its provision of personalized medicine – the use of sophisticated molecular tests that help determine the specific, genetic characteristics of patients’ disease and the drugs and treatment approaches to which they’re most likely to respond.
Here’s how Dr. Grogan breaks it down in layman’s terms:
With cancer, there is a driving force, and you have to find that force. If it’s breast cancer, it’s often driven by estrogen receptor hormone. So if we have a probe test and we add a dye to it, say, a red dye, when you look in the microscope at that tissue biopsy and it turns red, you know that it’s driven by estrogen receptor.
In other words, when you know the biology of the cell, you can personalize treatment – in this case, by giving the patient an anti-estrogen drug. This represents a giant leap from looking at cancer as one disease to understanding it as a huge family of different versions of the disease attacking different organs in different ways and propelled by different forces. It’s a far cry from the one-size-fits-all approach of the past. Dr. Grogan didn’t invent personalized medicine, but his invention has made a major contribution to its advancement, To date, the device he created has benefited some 20 million patients worldwide.
A Storied Life
In addition to recounting the rigorous medical education and training that equipped Dr. Grogan to accomplish this great achievement, his memoir reveals the childhood crises and traumas that ignited his passion to devote his life to surgical pathology and waging asymmetrical warfare against cancer. His father was a CIA agent with a double identity; his mother had been given thalidomide when she was pregnant with his younger brother, who was born with a brain deformity that left permanent effects on the whole family; cancer descended on the family, too, but it encountered a tough adversary in Dr. Grogan and the armamentarium of medical knowledge, diagnostic technology, and relentless resilience his life had instilled in him.
Through his book and the related publicity around it in newspaper and TV interviews, Dr. Grogan is now getting to relive it all. And the story covers a lot of territory, both thematically and geographically. In terms of the latter, Dr. Grogan takes readers back to the perilous Eastern Mediterranean island country of Cyprus, where he lived with his parents as a child in the early 1950s amid constant deadly tensions between the Cypriots and the colonial British authorities. Later he takes them to remote parts of the world where he sought to cure patients struggling for life against deadly diseases.
Thematically, he tackles not only his passion for medicine but his education in business. He captures the key lessons of his experiences raising capital for a startup, discovering the ins and outs of taking a company public and instilling his fledgling company’s employees with the purpose that fueled the growth of their enterprise. He explains the ingredients of Ventana’s culture of sustained innovation – a formula that helped eight Ventana chief executives ensure the company’s continued growth and kept on working when they moved forward to lead their own successful ventures.
I heard Dr. Grogan speak once in 2012 at a conference on personalized healthcare held at Roche headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. Sitting in the packed auditorium, I never expected to meet him up close, let alone get the opportunity to help him tell his story. What a treat that I did.