Getting to know Research Vice President Eyal Gottlieb, Ph.D.
Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
With the single spark of an idea, MD Anderson’s researchers – some of the best and brightest minds in the field – have the freedom and support to follow their inclinations, collaborate with other teams and test new theories that can eventually lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment that transform the field and patients’ lives.
Recently, MD Anderson welcomed a new leader to help mentor and inspire those researchers, Eyal Gottlieb, Ph.D., who serves as vice president of Research. Gottlieb is an accomplished scientist and leader whose own research combines the study of analytical chemistry and genetics to identify crucial metabolic pathways and processes to develop new treatment strategies. In his new role, he’ll help guide MD Anderson’s science departments in innovative discovery and translational research.
We recently spoke with him to learn more about his passion for cancer research and his new role at MD Anderson.
How did you get your start in cancer research?
Originally, I wanted to work with horses, and I started in veterinary school in Israel, which is very competitive there. Only 20 applicants get accepted to the school I attended each year. I had to invest a lot in my studies.
I did not come from an academically oriented family. My father was a Holocaust survivor and came as a refuge to Israel, a country he didn’t know. He lived in a tent for a few years. My mother had to leave Lebanon and immigrate to Israel in the 1950s. We were not poor, but we were not privileged. My brothers and I were pushed to excel and invest in ourselves academically. It’s something I’m really proud of.
During veterinary school, I was singled out by the university and asked to perform some research. I found myself spending a lot of time in the lab. Fortunately, my school was right across the street from the Weizmann Institute of Science, and I crossed the street to do research there. Eventually, I abandoned my vision of being a vet and moved into science.
Your career has taken you all over the world. Tell us about that and what you learned from it.
I did fellowships in Vienna, Austria, and in Germany. It was eye-opening to be out of my hometown, and it increased my appetite to explore science in an international environment. I did postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. Then I took a position in Glasgow, Scotland, at the newly established Cancer Research UK’s Beatson Institute in Glasgow, Scotland, and stayed 15 years before becoming a director at the Rappaport Institute in Israel.
Science is an international job, and, fortunately, it’s conducted in similar ways all around the world. A lab is a lab, no matter where it is. But traveling so much, especially as a young scientist was impactful. It allowed me to learn from the best across the globe and encouraged me to think differently and adopt different attitudes.
Science is so multicultural, especially in Houston and here at MD Anderson. Living in many different places has helped me more easily find a common language, common cultures and connections to others – whether it’s landmarks, foods or customs. I think it encourages people to work together and helps build trust.
What will you be doing at MD Anderson as vice president of Research?
I’ll work closely with members of our research community to implement our scientific research strategy and provide leadership in areas such as scientific recruitment, with an emphasis on diversity. In addition to my own research, I’d like to encourage, enable and promote the focus on basic research. I think we can further leverage MD Anderson’s vast clinical resources and enable the translation of basic research, whenever possible, into drug discovery, developing technological platforms and other clinical benefits. I think there’s nothing more rewarding than doing so. I was fortunate to take my basic research into drug development and further into a clinical trial.
What do you do when you’re not in the lab?
I really enjoy sailing. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a teenager, initially competitively and now just recreationally. I’ve been sailing in the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea in Scotland, and now I’m very happy to explore this side of the pond.
What drew you to MD Anderson?
I feel honored and privileged to be at an institution that’s so highly regarded, with such a strong reputation. MD Anderson seems like a place where I can flourish and fulfill my ambitions both in my research and in my leadership. Its basic and translational research is quite unique, and it’s quite robust. At MD Anderson, it’s easy to collaborate with clinicians and then take that work back into the lab and improve it. That’s why MD Anderson is renowned for both its work in the clinic and for enabling research.
I first heard about MD Anderson 25 years ago, when my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It changes you dramatically when you experience first-hand what a patient goes through and what an impact your research can have. My wife is doing fine today, but her diagnosis had a lasting impact on my research. It made me a better researcher. For me, it’s not just a job. It sounds simple, but it’s the truth.
Why is this such an exciting time to be in cancer research?
I’ve been in cancer research for more than 30 years. I have always been excited about it, but with the recent advances in immunotherapy, it seems like we’re constantly making progress as we discover how to apply it to treat different cancers. There’s constantly something new to celebrate.
I’m thinking about how we will maintain that excitement 10 years from now and 20 years from now. That’s one thing I love about cancer research. You’re always thinking ahead. You’re always thinking about how to make it better and explore new ideas. You never stop innovating.