March 22, 2019
By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service
As a young postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, Colorado-born Dr. Evan Newell would regularly meet up with colleagues and friends for weekend hikes in California’s mountain and wilderness parks — each month exploring a different park.
Now an associate faculty member at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he said those overnight trips to wild places were what he missed most during the past five years, while he worked in Singapore, conducting highly regarded studies on T cells, essential components of the immune system.
When Newell returned to the United States in the summer of 2018, he had two big reasons to be joyful. Not only was he building his own immunology lab at Fred Hutch, a global leader in T-cell science, he now was living close to the beckoning mountains of the Cascades and Olympic National Park.
“I was really looking forward to getting back outdoors,” he said. “In Singapore this is really not an option.”
While drawn to wide open spaces and beautiful vistas, Newell finds his life’s work within the tiniest of spaces: discovering how immune cells work at the molecular level. In Singapore and earlier at Stanford, he honed a technology known as CyTOF, which uses mass spectrometry — a workhorse technology in chemistry and physics — to identify proteins inside T cells. With an electrical jolt, these instruments blow individual blood cells to bits in quick succession and create from the pattern of molecular debris a kind of digital fingerprint for each cell.
From a small sample of blood or tumor cells, CyTOF rapidly catalogs millions of T cells and can spot dozens of different proteins within each one — molecular structures that might help or hinder that cell’s ability to defend against infectious diseases or cancer.
In Seattle, Newell continues his quest to discover how T cells respond uniquely to different cancers, or to a cell infected by a virus such as dengue or HIV. The goal is to identify more and more varieties of antigen-specific T-cells — immune system soldiers that naturally seek out telltale proteins on infected or cancerous cells.
“A lot of people here, like me, are working on T cells," he said. "We want to know exactly what they are recognizing on cancer cells and what they are doing differently in different people.”
This is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, and Newell stresses how little we still know. But solving these questions will have a big impact on patients. Understanding exactly how T cells recognize diseased cells might well determine whether an experimental drug will succeed in one person and yet fail for another. It could guide us to better, more personalized treatments for all.
“The Hutch right now is just an exciting place to be,” he said.
Newell got his start as a scientist at a very young age, roving around biological laboratories as a kindergartener in Denver, where his mother was a Ph.D. student. “In many ways, I’ve followed my mother’s footsteps,” he said.
Growing up, he was surrounded by her biologist friends, and in high school he worked a summer job in the lab of an immunologist studying, of all things, T cells. During his Ph.D. years at the University of Toronto, he was fascinated by the intricacies of cellular life, particularly the tiny electrical currents within cells.
“I would poke a glass electrode into a cell and measure the electrical properties. It was sort of like talking to cells, one at a time,” he recalled.
That intense curiosity and focus on detail caught the attention of Dr. Mark Davis at Stanford. Early in Davis’ career, he discovered the genes responsible for producing T-cell receptors, the surface structures T cells use to latch on to their targets. In 2006, Davis recruited Newell to become a postdoctoral fellow.
For Newell, that mentorship fired an interest in T cells that has defined his career ever since. His work with Davis helped earn him a spot at the Singapore Immunology Network.
Now settled in at Fred Hutch, Newell is eager to work with colleagues throughout the organization. His knack for mathematics and data science has placed him in demand with molecular biologists across campus who increasingly contend with large amounts of data from advanced machinery like gene sequencers and mass spectrometers.
“I’m actually sort of an amateur when it comes to it, but I’m not afraid to work with computational people. I’m sort of a middleman, a go-between," he said. "I think I’ll fit in well.”