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Seattle's life sciences scene in the spotlight

Xconomy forum highlights research in vaccines, organ transplants, big data, more

May 3, 2016 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Cameron Turtle addresses audience at Xconomy life sciences forum

Immunotherapy researcher Dr. Cameron Turtle addresses a sold-out audience at Xconomy's annual Seattle life sciences forum "Life Sciences Disruptors," held at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Monday.

Photo by William Wright / Fred Hutch News Service

It was a dizzying round-up of Seattle’s life sciences research and biotech scene, from designer proteins to the looming threat of the Zika virus.

Xconomy’s annual Seattle life sciences forum kicked off Monday afternoon with a nod by organizer and Xconomy national biotech editor Alex Lash to the region’s breadth and depth of medical and biology research and technology.

“What’s happening in Seattle? What I always find interesting is the intersections. It’s a small town compared to some of the other biotech centers,” said Lash, who chose the speakers for the event, held for three years running at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “You have global health meeting life science start-ups, you have big data meeting clinical research, all these different connections.”

This year’s forum was titled “Life Sciences Disruptors,” though Lash and the other speakers didn’t focus on the technology buzzword theme, but if there was one common thread to the afternoon’s whirlwind tour of Seattle’s public and private life sciences work it was the new and unexpected — and a look to the future of healthcare.

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Fred Hutch names new chief operating officer

Steve Stadum, of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, starts new role July 5

April 29, 2016 | By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service

Image: Steve Stadum

As Fred Hutch’s new chief operating officer, Steve Stadum will be responsible for all operational activities of the research center, which employs more than 2,700 faculty and support staff.

Photo by Carl Kiilsgaard

After a nationwide search, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has named as its new executive vice president and chief operating officer Steve Stadum, a lawyer by training and a Portland native with a track record of accomplishment at Oregon Health & Science University.

Stadum is currently the chief operating officer of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, and recently he played a central role in helping to secure $1 billion in funding to launch a vast expansion of the institute. On July 5, he will join Fred Hutch as a key member of President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland’s staff.

“He’s fantastic at building organizations,” Gilliland said. “He understands academics, he understands administration, and he knows how to put buildings up. I have the greatest respect for what he did at OHSU.”

When Nike founder Phil Knight offered OHSU a $500 million contribution in 2013, it came with a catch. The university had to raise funds for the challenge within two years or the offer would be withdrawn. Stadum worked to forge a partnership of private donors to raise money, and he helped engineer passage of a $200 million construction bond issue in the Oregon legislature. They met the goal last June, months ahead of schedule.

Stadum said the position at Fred Hutch, along with the quality of work being done at the center, the leadership and Seattle’s stature as a global city, “is probably the only job in the country that would have gotten me to leave my current job at the Knight Cancer Institute.”

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The science of cancer spread

The how and why of metastasis — and what it might take to stop it

April 28, 2016 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Metastatic breast cancer cells (green) sit on blood vessels (red) in the brain, surrounded by star-shaped nervous cells known as astrocytes (cyan).

Researchers at Fred Hutch are trying to understand the molecular signals that allow metastatic cells to seed and grow new tumors — and how to stop that spread. Here, metastatic breast cancer cells (green) sit on blood vessels (red) in the brain, surrounded by star-shaped brain cells known as astrocytes (cyan).

Photo by Dr. Heather Herd / Ghajar Lab / Fred Hutch

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on metastasis. Read part one, about patients living with metastatic breast cancer, here.

In some ways, cancer is maddeningly uniform. Different cells in a tumor aren’t all identical, but in a general sense, they are driven by the same, unifying goal: grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide. But one day, after enough growing and dividing, a tiny minority of those cells bucks the trend and does something different.

They metastasize.

Metastasis, or cancer spread, is complex and still largely mysterious. Those maverick cells have to go through myriad changes as they traverse the path from their original home in the primary tumor to new tumors they seed and form throughout the body.

They change from stationary to mobile, actively pushing their way out of their tumor home. They breech the walls of blood vessels or lymph nodes. They survive the strange new environment and physical forces of the circulatory system. And at their final destination, they do all these steps again in reverse, setting up shop anew and triggering the growth of a metastatic tumor.

Metastasis is very inefficient. Some large tumors may shed upward of a million cells into the bloodstream every day, but only a few of these cells actually form new metastatic tumors. If it weren’t so deadly the feat of those few cells would be almost awe-inspiring — nearly all deaths from solid tumor cancers are due to metastatic disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Even so, there’s still a ton researchers don’t understand about the process, let alone how to stop it, said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoctoral fellow Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson, who studies the biology of melanoma metastasis.

“The more I learn about metastasis from my work and other people’s work, the more outstanding questions I feel like get added to the list of outstanding questions,” she said. “Almost every step is an unknown.”

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

April 28, 2016

Dr. Lily Selim

Dr. Lily Selim

Photo by William Wright / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Lily Selim receives inaugural CTI BioPharma International Postdoctoral Research Fellowship

Dr. Lily Selim, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and visiting investigator in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch, has received the inaugural CTI BioPharma International Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, an endowed visiting fellowship for physician -scientists with an emphasis on treating and studying blood cancers.

Her yearlong fellowship was made possible by the establishment last fall of a $1.5 million research endowment and fund by Seattle-based CTI BioPharma and Fred Hutch.

The fellowship, established in memory of Hutch bone marrow transplant pioneer and Nobel laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, is intended to foster international collaboration in translational research and support advancements in the fields of hematology and immunobiology.

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‘I feel like this is the year’

New strides in metastatic breast cancer research and advocacy give patients, scientists hope

April 27, 2016 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Lab visit with Dr. Kevin Cheung

Dr. Kevin Cheung, a breast cancer oncologist and translational researcher, speaks with metastatic breast cancer patients during a tour of his lab on the Fred Hutch campus.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on metastatic cancer. Part two focuses on the biology of metastasis — and what researchers don’t yet understand.

The women started comparing side effects as soon as the elevator doors closed behind them on the top floor of the Public Health Sciences building.

Beth Caldwell, currently taking an oral chemo drug, talked about her horrible fatigue, neuropathy and hand-foot syndrome.

“I have hillbilly feet,” the 39-year-old joked. “They always look dirty now. And every time I take a shower, chunks of skin come off. It’s super gross.”

Michelle Gherardi, a 48-year-old Seattle filmmaker who takes the same drug, Xeloda, gets severe body pain, enough that it’s sent her to the ER. Retired Bellevue fire captain Jeanette Woldseth was only able to take Xeloda for four days before she started having coronary artery spasms and had to stop.

The women, all metastatic breast cancer patients, came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently to meet with translational researcher Dr. Kevin Cheung and talk about the disease they’re all trying to eradicate.

Unable to find a sitter, Caldwell brought along her daughter, Maggie. After a brief lab tour, the 4-year-old perched on her mother’s lap in Cheung’s office, learning her ABCs on a video game while her mom and the three other women calmly discussed the disease that’s slowly killing them. This surreal mix of life, death and science is nothing new for the women — or for Cheung, a breast cancer oncologist. Since being diagnosed with MBC, the women’s lives have become a strange jumble of pain and patient advocacy, parenting and oncology appointments, social media and their own looming mortality.

But despite the fact that MBC kills 40,000 women (and men) every year, they’re not despondent. Rather, they’re encouraged by recent advances in immunotherapy and targeted treatments, and new initiatives calling for data sharing and a substantial increase in cancer research funding.

“I feel like this is the year,” Caldwell said. “I think the vice president is right. We are at this inflection point. There’s the cancer moonshot. And doctors are talking to each other across clinics now in a way they didn’t use to. And the 'metsters' are no longer being ignored. We’re forcing ourselves in. Before, we just laid down and died. Now, we’re lying down and having ‘die-ins.'”

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93 percent of advanced leukemia patients in remission after immunotherapy

‘Exciting’ but early results from trial of engineered immune cells

April 25, 2016 | By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Kristin Kleinhofer and Dr. David Maloney

Under the supervision of Dr. David Maloney, Kristin Kleinhofer receives an experimental infusion of T cells engineered to fight her cancer on Nov. 19, 2014 at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch's patient care arm.

Photo courtesy Kristin Kleinhofer

For Kristin Kleinhofer, two words — “choose hope” — have been a lifeline.

Diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, she went through treatment that put her in remission, only to have her cancer return a year and a half later, more stubborn than before. That’s when she chose the phrase as her mantra, something to help her keep going. Hope buoyed her and her family as they searched for new options. And hope was what brought her to Seattle to take part in an early-phase clinical trial — one of just a handful of its kind in the nation — in which her immune cells were genetically engineered to kill her type of cancer.

“We were praying that we would get in [to this trial], and we were able to,” said Kleinhofer, 41. “Then, the hope was that it would work, because there was nothing left. There were no alternative things to do. It was my last hope at the time.”

On Monday, the investigators leading her immunotherapy trial published their first set of results: Kleinhofer was among the 93 percent of participants with B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, who went into complete remission after their T cells were re-engineered into cancer killers — even though multiple other treatments had already failed them.

“Patients who come onto the trial have really limited options for treatment. They have refractory, acute leukemia. So the fact that we’re getting so many into remission is giving these people a way forward,” said study leader Dr. Cameron Turtle of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation reported on data from 30 adult ALL study participants who received the engineered cells, known as CAR T cells. The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, Hutch spinoff Juno Therapeutics, private philanthropists and a Washington state research fund. It was designed to evaluate the cell therapy’s safety and lay the groundwork for future improvements.

“In early-phase trials, you’re continually learning. You don’t expect results like these from early-phase trials. That’s why these response rates are so extraordinary,” said senior author Dr. David Maloney of Fred Hutch.

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