• By Joe Dangor

Dr. Cheryl Willman named executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs, Director, Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center

May 17, 2021
the Mayo Clinic blue and white flag with three shield image, flying outside the Gonda Building

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Cheryl Willman, M.D., has been named executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and director of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Willman comes to Mayo Clinic from University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she has served as director and CEO for 20 years. Under Dr. Willman's leadership, University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center has become one of the most preeminent National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation.

In her new role, Dr. Willman will lead the expansion and strategic development of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center sites in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota, as well as newly developing Mayo Clinic global cancer programs in London, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

"Dr. Willman has an outstanding track record of innovation and success as the architect and leader of a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center serving the needs of the diverse population of New Mexico," says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., president and CEO of Mayo Clinic. "Her accomplishments, experience and outstanding reputation in the national cancer community make her the right choice to lead Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center."

Environmental close-up of Dr. Cheryl Willman
Cheryl Willman, M.D., executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and director of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"I could not be more honored by this opportunity to work with Mayo Clinic's exceptional leadership team, and its outstanding cancer physicians, scientists and staff, to lead Mayo cancer initiatives to the greatest of heights with tremendous national and global impact," says Dr. Willman. "Through the development of innovative platforms, partnerships and deep community engagement, we will work to assure that Mayo's renowned expertise in cancer care delivery is made available to more diverse populations and communities. This is an ethical imperative. Through the expansion and integration of outstanding discovery science and its translation to clinical and community settings, we will ensure that all have opportunity to benefit from advances in cancer research."

Dr. Willman is a pioneer in the field of cancer precision medicine. Her research focuses on the use of genomic, next-generation genome sequencing and computational technologies to discovery novel cancer-causing genomic mutations that can be translated to better cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.

Dr. Willman co-led the National Cancer Institute's Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments Project, also known as TARGET. This project, a component of the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Genome Atlas Project, focused on genomic sequencing of high-risk leukemias. Through these studies, she and her collaborators discovered novel leukemia-causing mutations more frequently seen in people of Hispanic ethnicity and American Indian genetic ancestry, providing insights into why these groups had historically failed to respond to treatments developed primarily through studies of non-Hispanic whites. These discoveries have been translated to several national clinical trials for leukemia sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, leading to significant improvements in patient outcomes.

Dr. Willman and her colleagues at The University of New Mexico, as well as collaborators from TGen and the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, are now leading one of the nation's National Cancer Institute Participant Engagement-Cancer Genome Sequencing Research Centers. Through collaboration and partnerships with tribal nations and Hispanic communities in the American Southwest, they are focused on discovering the genomic, environmental and behavioral mechanisms underlying cancers that disproportionately affect American Indians and Hispanics, leading to tremendous disparities in incidence and outcome. Through real-time return of clinical genomic sequencing results to patients and community involvement, they seek to ensure beneficence of this work and improve patient lives. Dr. Willman will continue to lead and expand this initiative with her collaborators as she transitions to her new role at Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Willman has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Cancer Institute, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for more than 30 years. She is a highly cited physician-scientist who has published over 250 papers, reporting her work in the highest-quality medical and scientific journals. She also holds 11 patents or patents pending.

She has received numerous awards from the National Cancer Institute, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and W.M. Keck Foundation, among others. She also was a co-founder and president of the Association for Molecular Pathology and is a member of the Department of Energy Women in Science Hall of Fame.

Dr. Willman serves on the National Cancer Institute's Board of Scientific Advisors, the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, the National Cancer Institute-Department of Energy Collaborative Working Group, and the scientific advisory boards of 10 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers. She has received several distinguished public service awards, including the 16th Governor's Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women in 2001; the New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award, 2005; the New Mexico La Estrella Award, 2013; and the New Mexico Humanitarian Award, 2014. In 2017, she was elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Dr. Willman received her medical degree in 1981 from Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Rochester. She received one of the first Physician-Scientist Awards in 1984 from NIH. Dr. Willman completed her residency and postdoctoral training in pathology and cancer research at Mayo Clinic, The University of New Mexico and University of Washington.

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