This week I spoke with Dr. Levi Garraway, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
How he got into medicine
It runs in the family. His grandpa and namesake, Levi Watkins, Sr., paved the way by getting a college degree in the 1930s, when few African-Americans did. (He went on to serve as president of Alabama State University.) Garraway’s uncle, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., was the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and made big contributions to medicine and civil rights. Garraway’s parents, who both got PhDs, made it clear that Garraway and his two sisters “wouldn’t be successful” unless they had doctorates, too, he told me. So Garraway pursued an MD-PhD.
His father was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 1995. Garraway discovered that the therapies available at the time — castration-based drugs that turn off the function of the testes — worked for only a year or so. Then the cancer “came roaring back,” he said. He was also frustrated that basic scientists and clinicians didn’t seem to be working together to fight cancer. His dad died four years after his diagnosis, at age 65.
Best “eureka” moment
About four years ago, Garraway’s lab sequenced the DNA blueprints of dozens of melanoma tumors, to look for recurring mutations that hadn’t been noticed before. They found one in an unexpected place: part of the genome called a promoter, which controlled the activity of a key cancer gene. “I don’t believe it,” Garraway recalled thinking. “This is too good to be true.” It turned out his lab had made a big discovery about the genetic basis of a deadly skin cancer. Over in Germany, other scientists had a similar “aha” moment. They published their findings on the same day.
Moment in history he’d most like to have witnessed
The March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. Garraway grew up hearing civil rights stories from his family. King, in fact, used to drive Garraway’s uncle Levi home at the end of the day during the Montgomery bus boycotts. “I’m now the beneficiary of a lot of turmoil and sacrifice,” he said, and that knowledge drives him to put his all into his work. “That’s about doing the best cancer research,” he said.