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May 25, 2017

Dr. Eric Holland

“The standard of care for patients with these tumors — surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy — has not changed in decades, and neither has the outcome. We hope through this work to change the standard of care and prolong survival for glioma patients,” said Dr. Eric Holland, director of Seattle Translational Tumor Research and senior vice president and director of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Bezos family funding accelerates glioma immunotherapy research

Since 2009, the Bezos family has donated and leveraged more than $40 million to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in support of immunotherapy research, which harnesses the power of the immune system to kill cancer. Thanks to their generosity, the Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center at the Hutch recently held an internal grant competition for immunotherapy projects with high potential to lead to future collaborative research.

The winner: a team of Hutch researchers led by brain cancer researcher Dr. Eric Holland that has received $400,000 for a two-year pilot study to test several novel immunotherapy approaches for glioma, an aggressive brain cancer that affects more than 688,000 people in the U.S. Ultimately, the research will speed the development of new treatments to improve prognosis for these patients, who have a median survival of only 15 months after diagnosis.

“The standard of care for patients with these tumors — surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy — has not changed in decades, and neither has the outcome. We hope through this work to change the standard of care and prolong survival for glioma patients,” said Holland, who is director of Seattle Translational Tumor Research and senior vice president and director of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch.

To develop new therapies before they can be tested in patients, Holland’s lab has developed a genetically engineered mouse model that is representative of human gliomas. Holland and colleagues from the Hutch's Clinical Research Division plan to use these mouse models to test several forms of immunotherapy that target both the tumor cells and other clinically relevant cells surrounding the tumor, known collectively as the tumor microenvironment.

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On the Zika trail

Genomic sequencing offers new clues to the virus’ spread from Brazil to the Caribbean to Miami

May 24, 2017 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Photo of an Aedes aegypti mosquito

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that serve as the vector between Zika and humans are present year-round in Miami, just one factor that made the city a "perfect storm" for the virus.

Photo courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim

When health officials confirmed the first locally acquired Zika cases in the continental United States in Miami in July 2016, they knew in a general way how the mosquito-borne virus probably arrived.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that serve as the vector between Zika and humans are present in Miami, but their range is limited — they don’t travel farther than about 1½ football fields. Tourists do.

Since none of the Florida cases involved people who had visited an affected country or had sex with someone who did, a traveler must have introduced the virus to local mosquitoes after being bitten abroad and then again in Miami.

Now a new study by a large group of international researchers sheds more light on how and when that happened. The study found the virus was introduced into Miami in 2016 at least four and up to 40 separate times, with most of the viral lineages from strains found in the Caribbean.

Co-led by scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, researchers sequenced the genomes from infected patients and mosquitoes from different times in the Miami outbreak — which reached about 250 cases — and created a phylogenetic tree, or genetic history, of the viruses.

“By working with the genome sequences, we were able to figure out how closely related these cases were and how many introduction events there were,” said Fred Hutch evolutionary biologist Dr. Trevor Bedford, one of more than 60 scientists who contributed to the study. The study was co-led by researchers from The Scripps Research Institute, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of Oxford, the Florida Department of Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The Miami research was one of three related studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature that analyzed Zika transmission and evolution using genomic sequencing. In the two others:

  • A team led by researchers at the Broad Institute traced the virus’s movement from its arrival in Brazil in 2013 to Honduras, Columbia, Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands and the continental United States.
  • A team led by British and Brazilian researchers focused on northeastern Brazil, where the virus first entered the Americas from the Pacific islands. Scientists from around the world converged on the hard-hit region for a road trip by bus — a mobile genomics lab.

A fourth study published in Nature Protocols detailed the technologies used by all the research teams.

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Q&A with the author of ‘The Radium Girls’: A new story chronicles century-old fight for workplace safety

Author Kate Moore in conversation with cancer researcher Dr. Anne McTiernan

May 23, 2017 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

New Jersey's "radium girls"

New Jersey's "radium girls" led a legal battle that revamped workplace safety laws in the U.S. From left to right: Quinta McDonald, Edna Hussman, Albina Larice, Katherine Schaub and Grace Fryer on June 4, 1928.

Center for Human Radiobiology, National Archives, Chicago

Nearly 100 years ago, the women began dying. Their bones literally crumbled inside them, rendering some permanently crippled, some with broken jawbones.

The women — some of them just teenage girls — were dial-painters, working in watch and clock factories around the U.S. in the 1910s and 20s. They painted the watches’ tiny hands and numbers with a glowing paint made from a special, newly discovered element. It was known as radium, and it was highly radioactive.

The women used delicate camelhair brushes to paint precisely. But even the tiny brushes did not hold a fine enough point.

So the factory workers put the radium-laden brushes to their lips, over and over again throughout their work day.

Eventually, it poisoned them. Many developed radiation sickness within a few years of starting to work. Some went on to develop rare bone cancers later in life. But it would take years, the development of new medical techniques and a protracted court battle with one of the country’s major radium producers before anyone believed their stories.  

U.K. author Kate Moore has chronicled these workers’ lives — and their fight for their illnesses to be recognized, medically and legally — in a newly published book, “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.” Last Friday at Seattle’s Town Hall arts hub, Moore joined Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Dr. Anne McTiernan, a cancer prevention researcher and author of a recent memoir, in a conversation about Moore's book and the women’s stories.

Below is a portion of their discussion, edited for length and clarity:

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How mutations in a single gene alter the course of a deadly brain cancer

New laboratory study of glioma links more aggressive immune response to poorer prognosis

May 23, 2017 | By Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Eric Holland

Brain cancer researcher Dr. Eric Holland led a new study linking aggressive immune response to poorer survival in patients with glioma.

Fred Hutch file

A diagnosis of glioma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, is never one that oncologists want to deliver. But not all gliomas are created equal.

Those with mutations in a gene known as IDH, for example, are linked to much longer survival, regardless of the cancer’s stage at diagnosis. In fact, clinicians often look for this molecular detail when patients are first diagnosed. The presence or absence of IDH mutations in a biopsy can help predict that patient’s prognosis.

New results published earlier this month in the journal Genes and Development show that part of this difference is directly due to the IDH mutation leading to a tempered immune response against glioma, in turn reducing the aggressiveness of tumors and prolonging patient survival. Gliomas with unmutated IDH, in contrast, prompt stronger immune responses that increase tumor aggressiveness and reduce survival. Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center made their discovery by creating the first mouse models of gliomas with the IDH mutation and using them to study the tumors in detail.

“We tested two questions,” said Dr. Eric Holland, the study’s senior author and a brain cancer researcher and neurosurgeon who directs Fred Hutch’s Human Biology Division, Seattle Translational Tumor Research and the Nancy and Buster Alvord Brain Tumor Center at the University of Washington. First, his team looked at whether mutations in IDH cause a drop in the number of immune cells entering tumors. Second, they asked whether this drop affects survival.

The team found that “if you reduce certain cell types [in gliomas with normal IDH], you can affect survival,” said Holland. Their findings point to potential new therapeutic avenues for glioma, he said, adding that the new preclinical model will also make deeper investigations into this type of glioma possible.

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Understanding cancer health disparities

Researchers and community advocates discuss causes, countermeasures at annual Science of Community Equity Symposium

May 22, 2017 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Heather Stevens

Heather Stevens, with the Sea Mar Community Health Centers, speaks during the Science of Community Equity Symposium, held Friday at Fred Hutch. Stevens and other community health advocates shared findings on recent research conducted with the help of the Hutch's Health Disparities Research Center.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Why do some cancer patients live and others die? Sometimes, yes, it’s the cancer itself. But other times it has more to do with whether the patient is insured, or speaks English or trusts the person in the white coat who’s telling them they need treatment.

Researchers have long known that inequities in health care can make the difference between life and death for many patients. So why do health disparities continue to exist and what can we do about them?

Dr. Beti Thompson and a quartet of community health advocates addressed these questions Friday at the Science of Community Equity Symposium at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, sharing findings on health disparities causes and countermeasures with researchers, doctors and patients.

Thompson has spent the past 30 years as a public health researcher at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington working on behalf of the medically underserved through the Health Disparities Research Center, or HDRC, and its many community outreach projects.

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Filling in the gaps on an ‘understudied population’

First-ever estimate of women living with metastatic breast cancer shows these patients are living longer with disease

May 17, 2017 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Bridgette Hempstead

Metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate Bridgette Hempstead said she wasn't surprised to learn women are living longer with metastatic disease. “I met a metastatic breast cancer patient who had been in treatment for 18 years,” she said.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have used a “mathematical recipe” to solve a longstanding puzzle: How many women in the U.S. are currently living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC).  

Published this week in the journal Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the study estimates that as of January 2017 there are nearly 155,000 women living with the disease in the U.S., a quarter of whom were diagnosed from the very start with advanced cancer — known as de novo — and three quarters who progressed to MBC from early stage disease.

This is the first time the number of women living with MBC has been estimated, and it is part of an ongoing effort by the NCI to provide data on what it calls an “understudied population.”

All told, 3.5 million U.S. women have a history of breast cancer — from those who were just diagnosed, to those who’ve gone through treatment for early stage disease, to those who were initially or eventually diagnosed with MBC.

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