Early in Dr. Denise Galloway’s career, she became fascinated by the idea that a virus could lead to cancer by sparking changes within cells.
“So I started asking: Which of the virus’s genes cause the cell to become abnormal and what do they do?” Galloway said.
This question led Galloway to study the human papillomavirus (HPV) and to make breakthrough contributions to a vaccine that prevents HPV and averts tens of thousands of cervical cancer cases each year.
Galloway and her colleagues showed that HPV is associated with nearly all genital-tract cancers and with many head and neck cancers. Her team also played a pivotal role in identifying how HPV causes cancer.
Galloway is particularly proud of how quickly her research translated into a lifesaving therapy.
“In just 25 years, we went from not having any idea what viruses were involved in these cancers to having a vaccine,” she said. “That’s amazingly fast.”
Now, Galloway is building on her experience to chart a new research direction. The Galloway lab is working with other Fred Hutch investigators to identify viruses that might trigger a wide variety of cancers.
For instance, lung cancer, lymphomas and skin cancers are unusually common in people with suppressed immune systems. Galloway thinks this may signal that viruses are involved. If that’s the case, those viruses could potentially be prevented with vaccines.
“It’s a bit of a gamble because we don’t know what mechanisms are in play,” Galloway said. “But I’m at a point in my career where I’m willing to take risks.”