Roland Strong, biophysicist

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Roland Strong, biophysicist

Translating a lifetime of discovery into new diagnostics and therapeutics

Nov. 7, 2014

By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

When Dr. Roland Strong was a kid, he collected bugs in jars and took apart clock radios to figure out how they worked. As he got older, his curiosity took him deeper: to figuring out how molecules work.

A biophysicist by training and a fundamental scientist by vocation, Strong has dedicated three decades to determining the structures and interactions of some of the most important molecules of life, from the antibodies involved in fighting disease to the markers on viruses that trigger an immune response.

At this point in his career, he said, he’s ready to use his expertise as a springboard into a new direction: from pure basic science into translational research that transforms laboratory discoveries into new products that help patients.

“The idea is to use our approach, which is understanding in great detail the biophysics of a protein or of a system, and [asking], ‘How can we leverage that knowledge to actually move translationally?’” he said.

Strong credits a powerful new protein production system, created by two graduate students in his lab, with making this shift possible. Called Daedalus, it produces large amounts of complex proteins more quickly and cheaply than has ever been possible. Specialized viruses carry genetic instructions for making a particular protein to lab-grown human cells, which then become mini factories that can create almost any protein the researchers want.

With Daedalus (now the backbone of Fred Hutch’s new Molecular Design and Therapeutics Lab), Strong can collaborate on translational projects that would otherwise never have been feasible, like his work with Dr. Martin Prlic, an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutch.

At a faculty retreat, Strong heard Prlic speak about needing to find a better way to block an immune system switch which, when activated on certain cells, seems to make vaccines less effective.

Strong pulled Prlic aside and sketched out on a napkin a complex molecule — “a total Frankenprotein, a totally weird-looking thing” — he thought he could engineer to block it, based on his own years of research on the same immune signal.

“Ten years ago, if I had told somebody in my laboratory to make this thing, they would have laughed at me,” he said. But now his signal-blocking, immune-boosting Frankenprotein is real, and Prlic’s team was able to launch right into studies in model organisms.

“The freaking thing works,” Strong said with amazement, punctuating this key verb with his hands like an orchestra conductor giving a downbeat. “It’s beautiful. It does exactly what we wanted it to do.”

Strong leans over his desk, propelled by his own excitement, as he talks about each of his translational collaborations with researchers throughout Fred Hutch. With those partners, Strong seeks to create everything from a new treatment for graft-vs.-host disease to a better diagnostic for cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV.

It takes a special institution to make this sort of teamwork possible, he said.

“[The Hutch] is a fantastic environment where a clinician can walk across a skybridge to a molecular person and say, ‘Can you come up with something like this that we can use?’ and then walk it back across the skybridge,” he said. “This is an amazing place.”

Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at skeown@fredhutch.org.

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