Innovator, imaging expert Juergen Willmann dies at 45

Juergen Willmann, an international scholar, dedicated himself to advancing cancer detection imaging technologies and leading with energy and compassion.

- By Hanae Armitage

Juergen Willmann

Juergen Willmann, MD, a professor of radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, died Jan. 8 in a car accident in Palo Alto. He was 45.

Willmann honed an imaging tool known as targeted contrast microbubbles that, in combination with ultrasound, could be used to detect early tumors and target the delivery of drugs. Over a decade at the School of Medicine, his lab advanced the microbubble work from the bench to animals, all the way to the first clinical imaging trials in humans, in which microbubbles were used to detect breast and ovarian cancer.

Described as both a brilliant clinician scientist and a compassionate family man, Willmann was known for his boundless energy and empathy. He loved music, played four instruments, was an accomplished pianist and considered becoming a professional musician before deciding on a medical career.

“He was as spectacular a person as he was a scientist. He just radiated this magnetism,” said Brooke Jeffrey, MD, professor of radiology at Stanford. “He was never arrogant, never showed hubris, and he was always interested in how you and your family were doing — it was a compassion that’s rare to find in someone who’s so accomplished.”

Native of Germany

Born in Germany, on May 24, 1972, Willmann earned his medical degree, summa cum laude, just 15 minutes from his childhood home in Buchenbach, at Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. Willmann traveled between California and Zurich, training in diagnostic radiology at the University of California-San Francisco and in surgery at a teaching hospital of the University of Zurich as part of his education. He completed his residency at the University of Zurich, along with his wife Amelie Lutz, MD, whom he met in medical school. Lutz is currently an assistant professor of radiology at Stanford.

After completing his residency, Willmann became an assistant professor and clinical attending physician at the University of Zurich in 2003. He received tenure two years later. He and Lutz were both granted funding from the Swiss government to take a two-year leave and travel to Stanford for a research fellowship — quite a stroke of fate, considering both he and Lutz applied separately and were considered based on their independent merit. The two ended up together in the lab of Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology, where they worked on multimodality molecular imaging technologies and early cancer detection.

“Juergen was very interested in early cancer detection because he understood the value of long-term research and how impactful early cancer detection could be to humanity when eventually successful,” Gambhir said. “He was exceptionally intelligent, highly driven, supremely organized and a wonderful leader, mentor, father and husband. I could not be more proud of anyone who I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from.”

In 2008, shortly after the fellowship ended, Willmann and Lutz made a permanent move to the United States, and he became an assistant professor of radiology in the School of Medicine. In 2015, Willmann was promoted to the rank of professor. Although actively recruited by European universities, Willmann opted to make Stanford his home, won over by his strong, fruitful research collaborations.

“Though his life was tragically cut short, Dr. Willmann had already made extraordinary contributions to his field and touched countless lives through his warmth, leadership and compassion,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “His death is a profound loss for the entire Stanford Medicine community.”

‘Just a dynamo’

Throughout his career, Willmann was generous in sharing his expertise with the students and postdoctoral scholars in his lab, and did so in a way that fostered what many deemed a family environment, Jeffrey said.

Outside of research, he assumed several administrative roles in the Department of Radiology, including clinical division chief of body imaging and executive vice chair of strategy, outreach and clinical trials. Jeffrey, the former clinical division chief, said that when he stepped down, Willmann was the unanimous choice. “In addition to his scientific accomplishments and his truly remarkable emotional intelligence, he was a real leader,” he said. “His management style was very inclusive, low-key and effective at many levels.”

Willmann’s investigation into cancer detection and imaging technologies earned him the 2017 Distinguished Investigator Award from the Academy for Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Research.

“He was just a dynamo — people have used the term ‘supernova’ to describe him, and they’re not wrong,” Jeffrey said.

“He was a larger-than-life kind of person,” Gambhir said.

Willmann was an elected fellow of the Society of Abdominal Radiology and of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.

He is survived by his wife and their two children, Alexander and Juliana Willmann; his parents, Elisabeth and Karl Willmann; and sister Sabine Willmann.

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.

About Stanford Medicine

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