|newsmaker: Michael Gallo, PhD
The New York Times,
Pondering the Ride of a Lifetime
by Eve Jacobs
What do you say when cancer strikes the go-to guy for cancer?
Maybe in the case of Michael Gallo, it's not what you say when you meet him, but what you don't say. With his signature mop of red hair, brilliantly colored bow ties and a storytelling gift par excellence, he welcomes you with a magician-like flourish into the landscape that is his life. Step into his world and you'll be mesmerized for hours.
Here is a man who wouldn't shy away from the hard questions, but he'll save you the effort, or maybe the embarrassment, of asking. You'll never have to say: What did you feel like when you got your cancer diagnosis? What was it like to go through chemo? How come you look so healthy barely one year later? How did you weather the storm?
"I was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in February 2004," he starts without prompting, "and I worked all the way through the chemo until the very end - also kept riding my usual 40 to 50 miles a week on my bicycle. I felt OK." Gallo's rides along the Raritan Canal help provide a balance to demanding and often-long workdays.
"Then the fatigue just hit me," he remembers. "It was like someone cut my throat and drained out all my red blood cells." When the chemo-reaction knocked him over (literally), it happened suddenly and forcefully: Gallo fell off his bike while riding and couldn't get up. That was in April - about halfway through treatment. "I was five miles from home, and it felt like every muscle in my body was cramping," he recalls. That spelled the beginning of a very bad period: he lost his hair, 25 pounds and his stamina, and bowed to the demands of his body for time to recoup.
"At the end of chemo in June, I took 90 days off," Gallo states. "I had to."
His post-chemo battle was tough. He doesn't sugarcoat his feelings in The New York Times article entitled "New Approach About Cancer and Survival," in which he is quoted on the debate about the use of the word "survivor" for those with a cancer diagnosis. "The word [survivor] overly sentimentalizes a brutal experience," he says.
But here he sits today - all 164 pounds of him (the 25 lost ones back in place) and with a full head of hair-almost glossing over the brutality of his illness, pushing it away, so he can get to the real substance of his life: family, work and sailboat. As he lays his cards out on the table, a pattern begins to emerge. This man is a climber of mountains, not literal, but figurative ones, and he's unstoppable.
"I was every mother's nightmare," he says, taking us back to his teen years. He remembers himself as a "modest high school student and class clown," who knew he wasn't ready to tackle college at age 18, so enlisted in the Marines.
Luck was with him. "My timing was right between Korea and Vietnam and I was assigned to run a weather station in North Carolina," he says. Meteorology classes at a local college were part of the deal. Gallo credits the military with teaching him more about people and management styles than he has ever learned again and with helping him to "realize what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
So, 43 years ago Gallo found his calling - not medicine, which his grandfather so encouraged him to take on, but toxicology and experimental pathology, the study of the adverse effects of drugs. After earning his PhD from Albany Medical College, he worked for Rhone-Poulenc, was executive vice president for Food and Drug Research Labs in East Orange, became a partner at Booz Allen Hamilton, and then started and ran his own company for a couple of years, an interlude in his career that still seems to surprise him.
In late '79, he received two memorable calls. One was from Bernie Goldstein, MD, the first director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI), who told Gallo that he was leaving NYU to set up a department of environmental and community medicine at Rutgers Medical School, the other from a colleague at Rutgers University saying they were launching a toxicology program. Would he be interested in coming on board? The calls changed his life. With Goldstein, he founded the Department of Environmental Medicine at what is now UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS). "We started it in the bowels of the medical school, by the Xerox machine," he reminisces. "The ceilings were less than seven feet high."
Then, after recruiting Bob Snyder, PhD, from Jefferson Medical School to head pharmacology and toxicology at the Rutgers School of Pharmacy, Gallo says, "The first thing we did was to set up the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology, with environmental and community medicine at Robert Wood Johnson and pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers. We built up the faculty in both."
In 1984, they - along with Audrey Gotsch, PhD, Michael Greenberg, PhD, and Michael Gochfeld, MD, PhD -were asked to put together the graduate program in public health. The philosophy Gallo adopted, and one he still stands by, is that when building a program, "You pick out areas of need and recruit the best athletes."
In 1985, the current UMDNJ-School of Public Health (SPH) was built on the foundation of the graduate program in toxicology, occupational medicine and health education, he says. Looking at the fruit of their labor, Gallo muses: "It's a very good school."
Brick upon brick, the edifices rose, and Gallo was consistently a lead bricklayer. In SPH's early years, major environmental problems surfaced in New Jersey, he remembers, citing dioxin in Newark and radon in the western part of the state as among the worst. "We were the players that Trenton called upon," Gallo says proudly. Their expertise earned them the backing of then-Governor Tom Kean, who dedicated $18 million to build the building that houses EOHSI, which opened in 1988, with Goldstein as director and Gallo as deputy director. The team was awarded their first NIEHS Center grant that year.
Gallo then went on a year's sabbatical to do research at Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute, returning in the fall of 1990 to an ever-expanding portfolio of responsibilities. He was named Associate Dean for Research at RWJMS and was also charged with helping to get a cancer center up and running, while simultaneously conducting his own lab research. He became Interim Director, wrote the first cancer institute grant in the summer of 1991, and with a committee which he chaired, the NCI-planning grant for The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) in 1992. It was one of only 16 in the country funded by the NCI, and "is the only one of the original group to get comprehensive status in a decade," he says proudly.
High among the top five achievements of his life Gallo counts the recruitment of Bill Hait, MD, PhD, to be CINJ's first director. "Hire the best talent out there was always my motto," he reiterates. The two have become close friends, and it was Hait - with Roger Strair, MD, PhD, a specialist in hematologic cancers at CINJ - who masterminded Gallo's lymphoma treatment. (He's currently in complete remission and "feeling great.")
He beams as he talks about the institute's goal to reach "the top 10 in 10. We'll get there," he says. "We're ranked 14th or 13th out of 60 right now." NIH grant dollars per faculty member are the criteria for the nationwide ranking of National Cancer Institute-funded centers, he explains.
Gallo left the dean's office after CINJ's director was in place. "I came back here," he says, looking around his EOHSI office, and "took over the NIEHS Center, which is the scientific engine that drives the institute." He has successfully led the competing renewals for the NIEHS Center Grant for EOHSI for the last 11 years. He also became Senior Associate Dean for Research at RWJMS in 2000, again assuming the duties of two distinct jobs, until 2002 when a permanent replacement was found and he moved on to serve EOHSI during its transition to a new director -Deborah Cory-Slechta, PhD.
What's ahead for this mighty energy force? "My goal is to make this the strongest biomedical campus in the country," he says. "Right now we're in the middle of the pack. We have outstanding pockets of clinical and basic research. I hope that they are the rising tide that will lift all the boats."
"It's been such a fun ride," concludes Gallo, referring to his multiple roles and 25 years at UMDNJ.
But the father of three grown children and grandfather of two values his family above all else; their photos line the shelves of his office and he brightens as he talks a little about each one.
"My father always quoted Albert Einstein, saying: 'Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,'" he states. And that has been Michael Gallo's mantra.