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MacGyvering lab equipment

From old bicycle wheels to an in-house metalworking shop, scientists get creative when the research tools they need don’t exist

March 3, 2015 | By Dr. Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Anna Greenwood

Dr. Anna Greenwood built a robot using a donated bicycle wheel and a broken rotor to conduct an experiment on why fish school.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

When Dr. Anna Greenwood set out to find the genes that drive fish schooling, she ran into a problem: The equipment she needed to conduct her experiment didn’t exist.

For her work on teasing out an individual fish’s role in this social behavior, she’d have to study one fish at a time in a controlled environment. But, of course, schooling is not a solitary activity.

The solution to her problem included a trip to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, a salvaged motor from some broken lab equipment, an old bicycle wheel and a lot of brainstorming. The end result: a homemade fish schooling robot, the next best thing to a group of live animals.

Greenwood, a behavioral biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and other basic scientists frequently find that they are pursuing research so cutting edge that the tools they need haven’t even been invented yet. So they do it themselves, often creating their own lab equipment out of a collection of unlikely and disparate parts, just as the TV character Angus MacGyver was famous for doing.

“You think you’re a biologist, but you have to actually be an engineer in some instances,” Greenwood said.

The price of being at the forefront of science can mean being a part-time inventor, something that many researchers have never trained for. The solution may come only through trial and error and a trip to the local hardware store, drugstore cosmetics counter or even their own kitchens. 

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Doctor who cured ‘Berlin patient’ of HIV: ‘We knew we were doing something very special’

Dr. Gero Hütter and Timothy Ray Brown speak about the transplant that forever linked them in medical history

Feb. 27, 2015 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Gero Hϋtter and Timothy Ray Brown

Dr. Gero Hϋtter, left, with Timothy Ray Brown. After Brown's cure became public, Hϋtter said he received emails daily from people with HIV saying "Please doctor, do the same for me."

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

When Dr. Gero Hütter gave Timothy Ray Brown a bone marrow transplant at a Berlin hospital on Feb. 7, 2007, he knew he could be making history. If, that is, Brown survived long enough to see whether the grueling transplant cured not only his leukemia but also his infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Brown did survive, and eight years later, is free of both cancer and HIV. On Thursday, the German doctor reunited with his Seattle-born patient for a rare joint public appearance to talk about how the world’s first -- and so far only -- HIV cure came about and what it means for the future.

“At the time we were doing the transplant, we knew we were doing something very special that could change the whole medical world if it worked,” Hütter told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people - including Brown’s mother – at the downtown Seattle Public Library. “We weren’t clear what would happen. It was a big and good surprise that it worked.”

Added Brown: “I didn’t really believe I was cured until he published the paper [in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009].”

Identified only as “the Berlin patient” in that first paper and in subsequent media reports, Brown, 48, went public in 2010, around the time he returned from Berlin to live in the United States.

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Fred Hutch to get $7.75M in Obamacare research funds

Project to research better way to treat neutropenia is one of five to get latest funding from Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute

Feb. 24, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Drs. Gary Lyman and Scott Ramsey

Drs. Gary Lyman, left, and Scott Ramsey are the directors of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Most people know about common chemotherapy side effects like hair loss and nausea. But another common side effect is neutropenia, an abnormally low white cell count that can lead to fever and infection and land cancer patients in the hospital or even result in their death. 

To fend off neutropenia, oncologists will often prescribe a biologic known as a primary prophylactic colony-stimulating factor, or PP-CSF, that helps boost a patient’s white cell count. But not all doctors use the same criteria to evaluate which patients get this drug and which don’t.

As a result, some cancer patients receive this medication when they don’t really require it and suffer needless side effects like severe bone pain. Other patients don’t receive it at all and endure far more serious consequences: fever, infection, hospitalization and the associated financial burden.

Thanks to a new $7.75 million research award, however, we will have an improved understanding of the neutropenia puzzle and better ways to reduce complications and improve the quality of patient care.

The funding, announced Tuesday, will be used by the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research (HICOR), a research institute of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, to conduct a pragmatic clinical trial evaluating the use of colony stimulating factors to reduce the risk of serious neutropenia-driven infections in patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast, colorectal or lung cancer.

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Immunotherapy offers 'new era' for cancer patients

Dr. Stan Riddell wows Science for Life attendees with overview of one of the most promising areas of medical research

Feb. 20, 2015 | By Andrea Detter / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Stan Riddell

“In my career in science and in medicine, I think these are amongst the most dramatic responses that I have ever seen with any therapy,” Dr. Riddell told nearly 200 members of the public who attended his presentation on Thursday, titled, "Cancer Immunotherapy — Is the Cure Inside of You?"

Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

“This is something that is not just science fiction. This is real world,” Dr. Stan Riddell said on Thursday when he described the immunotherapies currently being developed and tested as treatments for cancer. “We are entering, I think, a new era where immunotherapy is going to become as established as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and I’m hoping that it’s going to be a lot safer for patients and a lot more effective.”

Riddell, a world-renowned immunotherapy researcher and oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, made the comments to the nearly 200 members of the public who packed the Hutch’s Pelton Auditorium to hear his presentation, “Cancer Immunotherapy — Is the Cure Inside of You?” The Hutch-hosted Science for Life event enabled community members to hear about one of the hottest topics in medical research from one of the pioneers of the field.

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Timothy Ray Brown: the accidental AIDS icon

The ‘Berlin patient’ didn’t ask to be cured of HIV; now he wants a cure for all

Feb. 20, 2015 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Timothy Ray Brown, the first person cured of HIV, is greeted by members of the community after a defeatHIV lecture at Seattle University in June 2013.

Timothy Ray Brown, the first person cured of HIV, is greeted by community members after a defeatHIV lecture at Seattle University in June 2013.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Timothy Ray Brown became an icon the day he came out as the previously anonymous “Berlin patient” — the first and still only person in the world to be cured of the virus that causes AIDS. But the path to becoming the personification of hope for the 35 million people worldwide infected with HIV has been more challenging — and more convoluted — than many people realize.

The Seattle-born Brown was not trying to cure his HIV infection when he reluctantly agreed to a stem-cell transplant in a Berlin hospital eight years ago this month. The immediate threat to his life was leukemia. Chemotherapy had failed, and the grueling transplant — assuming he survived it — was a last-ditch attempt to cure his rapidly progressing cancer.

Brown will talk about how he came to be cured and why he wants an easier cure for others at a free community event Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. at the downtown Seattle Public Library. He will share the stage with Dr. Gero Hϋtter, the German blood cancer specialist who had the idea of curing both Brown’s leukemia and his HIV infection by finding a stem-cell donor who carried a rare genetic mutation that protects against HIV.

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Gentler treatment effective for many with graft-vs.-host disease

A new study finds halving standard steroid dose treats most acute GVHD just as well; could limit dangerous side effects

Feb. 19, 2015 | By Dr. Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Marco Mielcarek

Dr. Marco Mielcarek, a clinical researcher at Fred Hutch, led a new study testing the effectiveness of lower doses of prednisone for patients with acute graft-vs.-host disease.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

For cancer patients who’ve undergone bone marrow transplantation, graft-vs.-host disease can seem like a cruel irony. The donor immune cells that fought off their cancer now attack other body parts, leading to painful skin rashes, digestive troubles and sometimes liver problems.

Up to 70 percent of transplant recipients develop acute GVHD, which crops up within the first few months of transplantation. And 40 percent get chronic GVHD, which can evolve from acute GVHD or appear on its own and is often more severe and can last for years.

As if the double whammy of a treatment-induced disease after cancer wasn’t enough, the standard medication for GVHD – the steroid prednisone – carries its own host of potentially serious side effects, including an increased risk of dangerous infections in patients whose immune systems have already taken a major hit from the transplant procedure.

So doctors have to balance the risk of out-of-control GVHD with minimizing prednisone’s side effects, said Dr. Marco Mielcarek, a clinical researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who led a new study testing lower doses of prednisone in patients with acute GVHD.

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