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New strategy could prevent GMO leaks from lab to the wild

Scientists rewrite bacterium’s genetic language so it can’t survive outside the lab

Jan. 27, 2015 | By Dr. Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

The bacterium E. coli

Scientists have engineered the bacterium E. coli (pictured here) so its life depends on an artificial chemical available only in the laboratory. This strategy could prevent leaks of genetically modified organisms from the lab into natural ecosystems.

Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Scientists have crafted a bacterium incapable of surviving without human assistance. Using this strategy to build genetically modified organisms would prevent those GMOs from escaping into natural ecosystems, they say.

Genetically modified bacteria are commonly used in research and industry – for example, the bacterium E. coli is used to manufacture insulin and other drugs.

Whether bacteria could ever escape from those settings and wreak havoc in the natural world is unclear, but many members of the public feel containment strategies are necessary to prevent such a leak.

Scientists have tried many tactics to contain GMOs by manipulating their genes, but the bacteria eventually have found ways to evade those strategies, reverting back to their natural form. It became clear that any manufactured containment system would need multiple fail-safe layers.

Now, a team of scientists led by Dr. George Church of Harvard Medical School, involving collaborators at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has created a molecular Fort Knox that they believe is evolution-proof, rewiring all of E. coli’s DNA to render the bug completely dependent on a synthetic chemical. 

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Gratitude, guilt and surviving cancer

Living through cancer is life-changing — often in unimagined and challenging ways, says leukemia survivor Jessie Quinn

Jan. 26, 2015 | By Dr. Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Jessie Quinn shown dancing at a friend's wedding with her daughter and husband

A cancer diagnosis is a ticket to an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t end when doctors pronounce a cure. Leukemia survivor Jessie Quinn, shown dancing at a friend’s wedding with her daughter and husband, carries a deep sadness even after her strength and zest for life has returned. “I think about all the people who went through this, to get us where we are now. It’s an overwhelming thought to me.”

Photo courtesy of Jessie Quinn

There’s a cancer narrative you see a lot. A noble individual is struck by the terrible disease, with which they do battle. After righteous struggle, the fighter emerges victorious and reclaims their former life. Now gifted with the wisdom of the saints, they remain above the petty daily struggles that mire mere mortals.

It’s an appealing story. It gives meaning to a dark chapter in anyone’s life. But it’s a little hard to live up to, said Jessie Quinn, a four-year survivor of acute myeloid leukemia. “There’s an expectation that you’ll be a beacon of hope, a Buddha of wisdom. I felt none of that,” she said.

Staring your own mortality in the face, it turns out, doesn’t also confer a peek into some grand universal plan. Surviving cancer also does not bring a magical immunity to the burden of non-life-threatening daily struggles. Survival instead often brings unanticipated challenges.

Quinn was just 35 when she was diagnosed with AML. Happily married, engaged in an active outdoor career as a wildlife biologist in California and just getting her parental sea legs as the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, she saw her life unfolding along a happy, rewarding — and healthy — path. But cancer sent her life spinning down unexpected and uncharted byways.

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Fight the flu with Netflix?

Staying home and avoiding others can put a big dent in an epidemic, new TV-flu study finds

Jan. 22, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

protective masks in Mexico City

While some wore protective masks in Mexico City to combat H1N1's spread during the 2009 outbreak, staying home and watching TV was what helped slow the spread, a new study suggests.

File photo by Eduardo Verdugo / AP

We’ve all heard the advice. If you get sick with a cold or flu, stay home so you don’t pass it on to friends, co-workers or that guy sitting next to you on the bus.

Sure, sure, we say, loading up on Nyquil and heading out the door. Who can stay home when we’ve got projects to complete at work, movies to see, or that special birthday dinner out on the town with mom?

An interesting new study that looked at home television viewing during a flu epidemic in Mexico, however, shows just how much staying at home and avoiding contact with others can actually quell the spread of infectious diseases like the flu.

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The diet dilemma

In a landscape crowded with contenders that each promise better health, how do you choose the best eating plan?

Jan. 21, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Science beakers

How do we sort through the confusion to find an eating plan that works for us – and still makes good scientific sense? We asked top experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and elsewhere for their opinions.

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

When Angela Smalley decided to go on a diet earlier this month, it wasn’t about squeezing into a smaller dress size by March (although she admits that would be nice). It was about maintaining her health for the long haul.

“I’d like to take care of my body now rather than have to be reactive to problems that might come up as I age,” said the 47-year-old Seattle marketing executive of her recent switch to an eating plan that restricts carbohydrates, sugar and dairy and loads up on vegetables and lean protein. “I don't have any health problems right now, and I'd like to keep it that way.”

When we’re in our 20s and 30s, we diet to fit into wedding dresses, interview suits and that favorite pair of skinny jeans. But as we get older, studies show that our goals shift and become less about how we look and more about how we feel – or want to feel – for the rest of our lives. We diet to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and to try to fend off cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Sure, we want to “look good naked,” as Kevin Spacey famously said in the film “American Beauty,” but we also want to improve our overall health and longevity.  

And we look for eating plans to help us accomplish this. Unfortunately, the diet landscape is crowded with contenders, each one promising better health and longer life by lowering our glycemic index, raising our alkaline level or reducing our oxidative stress through a handful of Fabulous Miracle Superfoods! We’re blinded by science; we’re blinded by pseudoscience. And every 10 minutes a new study comes out that turns the last one on its head.

How do we solve this diet dilemma and find an eating plan that works for us – and still makes good scientific sense? We asked top experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and elsewhere for their opinions.

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Enterovirus D68 seen in cancer, stem cell transplant patients

Virus behind outbreak that sickened children also caused illness in immunocompromised adults

Jan. 16, 2015 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

enterovirus D68

An up-close look at enterovirus D68, which sickened more than a thousand children last year. A new study showed that it also caused illness in adults with cancer.

File photo by Center for Disease Control and Prevention

The virus that sent hundreds of children across the nation to hospital emergency rooms with severe respiratory infections last summer also caused serious illness in adult cancer patients, according to researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington.

A paper published online Thursday in the journal Blood described the pathogen, enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), in eight adults who had received stem cell transplants or chemotherapy for blood cancers. Two of them required mechanical ventilation and admission to intensive care units.

“We are the first group to describe EV-D68 infections in immunocompromised adults, and we showed that it can cause severe respiratory disease,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr. Alpana Waghmare, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Seattle Children’s and a Fred Hutch research associate. “The findings of our work have significance not only at our institution, but also to other cancer centers worldwide.”

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Super drugs for superbugs: Creative ways to combat antibiotic resistance

New discoveries could overcome antibiotic development stalemate, stay ahead of bacteria’s steady march toward drug resistance

Jan. 15, 2015 | By Dr. Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service


The iChip, developed at Northeastern University, lets researchers study many new types of bacteria by growing them in their native environment. The research team isolated a potential new antibiotic from a previously undiscovered bacterium buried deep in a field in Maine.

Photo by Slava Epstein / Northeastern University

In the ongoing war between bacteria and the drugs to beat them, the stakes keep rising as the bugs evolve to become dominant in a life or death contest of one-upmanship.

Each year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken more than 2 million in the U.S. and kill at least 23,000, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The threat is so high that in September, President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling for action to stem the rise of these “superbugs.”

Antibiotic development has slowed to a crawl in recent decades, but several creative new approaches to fighting superbugs could turn that around, including tricking soil bacteria to grow in the lab and compounds that could halt antibiotic resistance by slowing bacterial evolution.

Last week, a team of scientists led by biochemist Dr. Kim Lewis of Northeastern University announced the discovery of an antibiotic extracted from a previously undiscovered bacterium. In laboratory tests that aimed to replicate bacterial evolution of antibiotic resistance, it showed signs that the drug may prove “largely resistance-free,” as Lewis said in an NPR interview.

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