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When scientific hypotheses don’t pan out

Research studies are often built around an educated guess. What happens when those guesses are wrong?

Feb. 16, 2018 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Illustration of a scientist holding a beaker; a rack of test tubes behind him has a cloud with question marks coming out.

Research is often driven by a scientific hypothesis, an educated guess about how studies will turn out. But sometimes the results surprise even the scientists.

Illustration by Kim Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

One pair of scientists thought they’d discovered a new antiviral protein buried inside skin cells. Another research team saw early hints suggesting that the flu virus might cooperate to boost infections in humans. And a nationwide team of clinicians thought that high doses of certain vitamins might prevent cancer.

These studies don’t have much to do with each other, except that the researchers had all based their hypotheses on convincing earlier data.

And those hypotheses were all wrong.

The hypothesis is a central tenet to scientific research. Scientists ask questions, but a question on its own is often not sufficient to outline the experiments needed to answer it (nor to garner the funding needed to support those experiments).

So researchers construct a hypothesis, their best educated guess as to the answer to that question.

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Lobular breast cancer comes into the spotlight

Research collaborations, patient advocates push to explore ‘sneaky,’ understudied subtype’s standing as a distinct disease

Feb. 15, 2018 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Patient advocate Leigh Pate

Patient advocate Leigh Pate is working with researchers and patients to raise the profile of lobular breast cancer, which many consider to be "understudied."

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The first time Leigh Pate heard the term was when she got a phone call from her doctor following a series of diagnostic tests. The mammogram had been clean — like so many before it — but the ultrasound and biopsy told another story.

“After I hung up, I went to my computer and typed in ‘globular breast cancer,’” said Pate, a 51-year-old public policy consultant from Seattle of her diagnosis seven years ago. “Google had to correct me.”

Pate went through two surgeries, five months of chemotherapy, 33 courses of radiation and four years of tamoxifen, a daily pill that cuts off the fuel source for this very estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) disease. By the end of her treatment and recovery, she not only knew what lobular breast cancer was, she was determined to shine a spotlight on this idiosyncratic subtype.

“I started asking about lobular and realized they don’t know enough,” she said. “It’s lumped together and treated just like regular ER+ breast cancer. But lobular presents differently, it behaves differently and it has different subtypes and variants.”

Patients like Pate aren’t the only ones pushing for more lobular research.

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Dr. Matthew Miller named Damon Runyon ‘Breakthrough Scientist’

Award follows Miller’s Damon Runyon postdoctoral fellowship, confers $100,000 in research funding

Feb. 15, 2018 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Matthew Miller in a Fred Hutch laboratory

Dr. Matthew Miller, Fred Hutch postdoctoral fellow, has received a Damon Runyon 'Breakthrough Scientist' award.

Fred Hutch file

Fred Hutch postdoctoral fellow Dr. Matthew Miller has received the Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientists, an award conferred to six recipients this year. The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced the award last week.

Miller, a postdoctoral fellow working in the lab of Fred Hutch scientist Dr. Sue Biggins, had received a four-year Damon Runyon Fellowship from the same foundation in 2014. The “breakthrough scientist” awards are given to researchers at the end of their fellowships who “have greatly exceeded the Foundation’s highest expectations and are most likely to make paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that transform the way we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer,” the foundation said in a statement.

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How new drugs become available to more patients

Filling in the unknowns on the balance between risk and benefit

Feb. 9, 2018 | by Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Graphic illustration showing a scale with people, medications and question marks balanced on each side

Often, a new drug is only approved to treat patients with advanced disease. Why? It's a matter of risks and benefits. With continued research, wider availability can follow.

Illustration by Kim Carney / Fred Hutch

Change is coming in cancer treatment. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its first-ever engineered cell therapies for cancer, which involve genetically reprogramming patients’ T cells to aim the power of their immune systems squarely at their cancers.

Both of these new therapies are approved only for people with certain advanced cancers who have been failed by multiple conventional treatments, like chemotherapy. Some people may wonder: If these treatments are so promising, why aren’t they available for more patients, including those who have just been diagnosed?

The short answer: We are not yet sure if the benefit outweighs the risk for patients at earlier stages of disease.

If these new treatments run a course anything like many other cancer therapies, however, they may eventually move up to the frontlines of therapy. What would it take for that to happen?

Let’s take a look at the longer answer: how research can fill in the unknowns, shift the balance of evidence and make a new therapy available to more patients.

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Dr. Steve Pergam receives Dr. Ali Al-Johani Award

An expert in infection prevention who is also a 'passionate patient care advocate and an outstanding physician'

Feb. 7, 2018 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Drs. Nancy E. Davidson and Steven Pergam

Oncologist Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, director of Fred Hutch's Clinical Research Division, presents the Dr. Ali Al-Johani Award to infectious disease physician-researcher Dr. Steve Pergam.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Steven Pergam, an infectious disease physician-researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, has received the 2018 Dr. Ali Al-Johani Award, which recognizes exceptional medical care and compassion to transplant patients and families.

“This was the world’s easiest task for the selection committee,” said Hutch Clinical Research Division Director Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, who presented the award to Pergam on Tuesday. “We had a dozen nominations for you, all of them extolling your virtues as a physician.”

Awardees are nominated by their fellow caregivers and chosen by a committee that includes the clinical research division director and representatives from nursing, clinical faculty, and quality and patient services. Pergam is the 15th Fred Hutch physician-researcher to receive the award and the first infectious disease specialist to do so.

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Flu season tips for cancer patients

It’s bad out there. Here are 7 things you need to know to protect yourself — and others

Feb. 6, 2018 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Peggy Sherlin gets a flu shot from registered nurse Nancy Johnson

Peggy Sherlin, a former employee of the Patient Family Resource Center at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, got a flu shot from registered nurse Nancy Johnson at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center campus in Seattle. Not only should cancer patients get flu shots, their families and caregivers should too.

Fred Hutch file photo

Flu is miserable enough for someone who is otherwise healthy. It can be devastating for people whose immune systems have been weakened by cancer or treatment or both.

With flu dominating the headlines, we asked two infectious disease specialists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center how cancer and other immunocompromised patients can protect themselves from infection and what they should do if they get sick.

Here are seven things you should know — whether you are the person with cancer or anyone in that person’s orbit. (Yes, family members, friends, co-workers and care providers with healthy immune systems can take steps to protect those without.)

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