Research Highlights

2010 Key Findings

A decade of improvements in long-term survival of blood cancers
A decade of refinements in marrow and stem cell transplantation to treat blood cancers significantly reduced the risk of treatment-related complications and death, according to an analysis of transplant-patient outcomes conducted at the Hutch. Among the major findings of the study, which compared transplant-patient outcomes in the mid-‘90s with those a decade later: After adjusting for factors known to be associated with outcome, the researchers observed a statistically significant 60 percent reduction in the risk of death within 200 days of transplant and a 41 percent reduction in the risk of overall mortality at any time after transplant.

Study of Japanese atomic bomb survivors shows radiation exposure poses similar risk of first and second cancers
It is well known that exposure to radiation has multiple harmful effects–including causing cancer–but until now, it has been unclear to what extent such exposure increases a person’s risk of developing more than one cancer. In the first large-scale study of the relationship between radiation dose and risk of multiple cancers among atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Dr. Christopher Li and colleagues found a similar risk in the development of first and second subsequent cancers. Such research is essential to developing radiation protection limits and standards for occupational exposures, as well as planning for the consequences of widespread radiation exposure in the general population in the event of a nuclear accident, nuclear war or “dirty bomb” terrorist attack.

Immune system discovery holds diagnostic and therapeutic potential for autoimmune diseases and cancer
When it comes to the mechanics of the human immune system, we are all more alike than previously thought, according to a new study led by Dr. Harlan Robins. Robins and colleagues developed a novel way to sequence millions of T-cell receptors, a critical component of the human adaptive immune system, simultaneously from a single sample. When comparing immune system profiles from different people, the researchers were surprised to find that we are all more alike than previously thought. This finding has significant implications for developing new ways to detect, diagnose and treat cancer and diseases of the immune system.

Researchers identify and isolate adult mammary stem cells in mice
For the first time, researchers led by the Hutch’s Dr. Larry Rohrschneider and Lixia Bai identified and isolated adult mammary stem cells in mice. Long-term implications of this research may include the use of such cells to regenerate breast tissue, provide a better understanding of the role of adult stem cells in breast cancer development, and develop potential new targets for anticancer drugs.

International research team closes in on cause of common form of muscular dystrophy
An international team of researchers, including investigators from the Hutch, made a critical advance in determining the cause of a common form of muscular dystrophy known as facioscapulohumeral dystrophy, or FSHD. They identified a DNA sequence in individuals with FSHD that causes a gene called DUX4 to be more active. Previous work has shown that this gene produces a protein that is toxic to muscle cells, and the current study indicates that it is likely to be key to developing FSHD. This finding points to potential new drug targets for treating—or potentially curing—FSHD, a progressive condition characterized by progressive wasting of muscles in the upper body.

Freezing “to death” and living to tell about it
How is it that some people who apparently freeze to death, with no heart rate or respiration for extended periods, can be brought back to life with no long-term negative health consequences? Dr. Mark Roth and colleagues showed in the laboratory that two widely divergent model organisms–yeast and nematodes, or garden worms–can survive hypothermia, or potentially lethal cold, if they are first put into a state of suspended animation by means of anoxia, or extreme oxygen deprivation.

Shape of ulcer bug H. pylori enables it to thrive in the stomach
For years researchers hypothesized that the corkscrew shape of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with a variety of stomach disorders, is what enables it to survive—and thrive--within the stomach’s acid-drenched environment. Researchers led by Dr. Nina Salama were the first to demonstrate that, indeed, H. pylori’s helical shape helps it set up shop in the protective gelatin-like mucus that coats the stomach. Such bacterial colonization–present in up to half of the world’s population– causes chronic inflammation that is linked to a variety of stomach disorders, from chronic gastritis and duodenitis to ulcers and cancer. These findings could help to develop targeted therapies that prevent infections in the first place.

Breast cancer patients with BRCA gene mutations are four times more likely to get cancer in opposite breast
Women with breast cancer before age 55 who carry an inherited mutation in the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 are four times more likely to develop cancer in the breast opposite, or contralateral, to their initial tumor as compared to breast cancer patients without these genetic defects, according to a study led by Dr. Kathleen Malone and colleagues. This study also revealed that among those who harbored a BRCA1 mutation, the younger they were at the time of initial diagnosis, the higher their risk of developing contralateral breast cancer.

Common osteoporosis drugs are linked to decrease in breast cancer risk
Women who take some types of bone-building drugs used to prevent and treat osteoporosis may be at lower risk of breast cancer, according to a study led by Dr. Polly Newcomb. The study found that women who used bisphosphonate drugs, such as Fosamax, Boniva and Zometa, for more than two years had a nearly 40 percent reduction in risk as compared to those who did not.

Racial disparities persist in diagnosis of advanced breast cancer and colon cancer in the United States
The incidence of advanced breast cancer diagnosis among black women remained 30 to 90 percent higher compared to white women between 1992 and 2004, according to new findings by Dr. Christopher I. Li and colleagues. In addition, the disparity in the incidence of advanced colorectal cancer widened over this time period, as rates fell among whites but increased slightly among blacks.

Study details first successful use of expanded umbilical-cord blood to treat leukemia
Dr. Colleen Delaney and colleagues cleared a major technical hurdle to making umbilical-cord blood transplants a more widely-used method for treating leukemia and other blood cancers. Their study described the first use of a method to vastly expand the number of stem/progenitor cells from a unit of cord blood in the laboratory. Those cells were then infused into patients, resulting in successful and rapid engraftment. Cord blood is a promising source of stem cells to replace diseased blood and immune systems in stem cell transplantation because the donated cells don’t need to be perfectly matched to the patient.