Dr. Robert Martuza graduated with honors from Bucknell University and Harvard Medical School. He did a student research fellowship in virology fellowship under Paul Black and then a residency in neurosurgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Thereafter, he spent 12 productive years on the neurosurgical staff at the MGH. He was instrumental in starting the Neurofibromatosis Clinic and the Brain Tumor Center at the MGH. He, along with Drs. Gusella, Seizinger and Rouleau helped to define the different forms of the neurofibromatoses. Dr. Martuza noted the association between the multiple meningiomas and acoustic neuromas in NF2 relative to the unilateral isolated acoustic neuroma in the general population and in a paper in Nature in 1986, they demonstrated that the gene for acoustic neuroma was on chromosome 22. This was the first demonstration of the DNA localization of any gene as the cause of a brain tumor. The next year in a paper in Science, they went on to demonstrate a common pathogenetic mechanism for three tumor types in what is now know as type 2 neurofibomatosis (NF2). In that same year in a PNAS paper, they demonstrated that this same genetic abnormality also was responsible for meningioma development and in another Nature paper that this gene was the cause of the syndrome of NF2 itself.
At this point, Dr. Martuza began to explore the possibility that these molecular techniques might be used not only for understanding the biology of these tumors but also for therapy. He took an in-house sabbatical and worked in the lab full time, and then with Drs. Coen and Markert published a paper in 1991 in Science describing for the first time a new concept of a genetically-engineered selectively replicating virus for cancer therapy. These are now known as oncolytic viruses. They are designed to selectively replicate within and kill cancer cells while not harming normal tissue. In several manuscripts in the late 1990s, Drs. Martuza, Rabkin, and Toda described a concept known as “in situ vaccination” wherein an oncolytic virus can induce an anti-cancer immune response to eliminate tumor cells at a distance from the initial injection. This has led to novel oncolytic virus constructs utilizing immune modulators and the field of immunovirotherapy. This class of novel therapeutic agents has entered multiple advanced clinical cancer trials, spawned several companies, and have led to a large and developing field with multiple laboratories worldwide studying oncolytic viruses of various types for cancer therapy.
In 1991, Dr. Martuza left the MGH to become Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Georgetown University School of Medicine. In 2000, he returned to Boston as Chief of the Neurosurgical Service at the MGH and Director of the MGH Brain Tumor Center and is the William and Elizabeth Sweet Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. In 2013, he was one of the founders of the Department of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and was appointed as the first Chairman of the HMS Department of Neurosurgery Executive Committee. He has had over 35 years of continual NIH research funding and has authored over 250 peer-reviewed articles, chapters and reviews, and he and his colleagues hold 17 patents on much of this technology. He has been a Director of the American Board of Neurological Surgery, a member of the National Academy of Medicine, and has been the recipient of the Von Recklinghausen’s Award from the National Neurofibromatosis Foundation, The NF Inc. Scholar award, the Grass Award from the Society of Neurological Surgeons, the Bittner Award in Brain tumor biology from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, and the Golden Virus Award from the International Oncolytic Virus Conference.
In 2017, after more than 25 years as a department chair, Dr. Martuza stepped away from administrative and clinical functions. He remains active in the laboratory with continued NIH R01 grant funding.