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Pacific NW Magazine profiles Fred Hutch’s pursuit of cancer cures

Seattle Times’ Sunday feature looks at the melding of expertise, drive and technology making new cures possible

May 17, 2018 | By Fred Hutch staff

Cover of Pacific NW Magazine

The cover story of this Sunday's Pacific NW Magazine delves into the work underway at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to develop cancer cures.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is honored to be featured as the cover story of this week’s Pacific NW Magazine. In “The Hutch closes in on a cancer cure,” writer Ron Judd and photographer Mike Siegel explore why Fred Hutch could be the place where cancer’s final chapter begins — “and in the process, permanently burnish Seattle’s spot on the big, ascent-of-man scientific map.”

Hutch leaders, senior researchers and early-career scientists interviewed for the story speak to President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland's bold vision of developing curative therapies for most if not all cancers by 2025 and what it will take to get there. The article highlights the promise of next-generation immunotherapies built on decades of discovery, including the pioneering of bone marrow transplantation as a cure for certain blood cancers. It also points to the breadth and complexity of Fred Hutch's research, its partnerships with tech and data neighbors, and the need for funding to fully capitalize on the latest advances.

Read the story and share your comments on the Seattle Times' website.

And don’t miss "The backstory," Judd’s take on going behind the scenes at Fred Hutch — and meeting the people he calls “the beating hearts of the place.”

Tinkering with T cells

How researchers are tweaking engineered immune cells’ cancer-targeting receptors — and why it matters

May 15, 2018 | By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Two people looking into microscopes in a lab

Research techs Joe Abbott and Anusha Rajan work last month in the Riddell Lab at Fred Hutch.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

“There’s 40 million T cells in this little thing,” graduate student Alex Salter said as he held up a tightly sealed, plastic flask about the size and shape of a pocket paperback. The liquid inside sloshed gently as he stepped aside to let one of his colleagues in the busy lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center go by. Chock-full of nutrients, the orange Kool-Aid-colored growth medium in the flask was clouded by the hordes of human cells that had been happily multiplying there for days.

headshot of Alex Salter

Alex Salter is a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Stanley Riddell at Fred Hutch.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

These cells were Salter’s babies. He had genetically engineered their forebears to carry different versions of a cancer-targeting molecular weapon, and he was readying to put his burgeoning T-cell army to the test in dishes full of breast cancer cells. He wanted to know: Which ones of these kill cancer the best, and why?

A type of immune cell, T cells are at the heart of a class of emerging therapies that seek to aim the power of the immune system at cancer. Two approved therapies for certain advanced blood cancers involve genetically reprogramming patients’ T cells to target their tumors, and many more such strategies are in the pipeline, including at Fred Hutch. These therapies and others still in development have shown promise in eradicating even treatment-resistant cancers that have penetrated throughout patients’ bodies.

But today’s T-cell therapies are like the Wright Flyer was to aviation. While many problems have been solved to get to this point, there are so many innovations yet to come. And that’s why T-cell tinkerers like Salter and his colleagues are hard at work.

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A focus on partnerships at Hutch/Merck summit

Research on the immune system aims to stop infectious diseases and cancer

May 11, 2018 | By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service

Niki Robinson, Fred Hutch's vice president of Business Development & Strategy (back to camera), greets Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland and Merck's Darla Hazuda ad Alex Szidon at the beginning of the Infectious Disease Summit.

Niki Robinson, Fred Hutch's vice president of Business Development & Strategy (back to camera), greets Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland and Merck's Darla Hazuda ad Alex Szidon at the beginning of the Infectious Disease Summit.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

To speed the delivery of new vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases to the marketplace, academic and business communities need to collaborate, said researchers and executives at a daylong Infectious Disease Summit hosted yesterday in Seattle by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“We can’t do this alone,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, at the opening of the conference. “We need each other to support true partnerships that can translate our discoveries into products.”

Fred Hutch organized the summit with New Jersey pharmaceuticals maker Merck & Co., which, like the Hutch, is heavily engaged in research on both cancer and infectious diseases. Gilliland has a background in both academic and industry research; from 2009 to 2013 he headed Merck’s global oncology research.

He noted that about 20 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by pathogens, and that “connecting the dots” between viruses and the cancers they cause can create “an extraordinary opportunity for prevention and therapy.”

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Dr. Gary Gilliland named ‘Geek of the Year’

‘We will cure cancer. And we will cure it in a very short time frame,’ said Fred Hutch president and director at the 10th annual GeekWire Awards

May 11, 2018 | By Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service

See Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland accept his Geek of the Year award last night at the 10th annual GeekWire Awards in Seattle.
Video courtesy of GeekWire

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, a physician-scientist who is renowned for his expertise in cancer genetics and precision medicine, last night added another feather to his cap, winning “Geek of the Year” at the 10th annual GeekWire Awards. The event, which honored the top companies and entrepreneurs across the Pacific Northwest in 13 categories ranging from “Deal of the Year” to “Next Tech Titan,” drew more than 900 to Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture.

Upon accepting the honor, announced by GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop and presented by Wave Business, Gilliland said, “We will cure cancer. And we will cure it in a very short time frame.” But, he implored the tech community, “We can’t do it alone.” He then invited his fellow nominees to join him onstage, telling the crowd, “You have to know who these people are — they’re amazing people.”

Joining him in the spotlight were Geek of the Year finalists Caroline King, co-founder and CEO of Washington STEM; Solynn McCurdy, CEO of Social Venture Partners; Amy Nelson, CEO of The Riveter; and, from, CEO Hadi Partovi and President Alice Steinglass — all, according to GeekWire, “Northwest heavy hitters working to do good using technology.”

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Functional genomics provides a window into cancer's Achilles heels

Technique pinpoints unique tumor vulnerabilities — even when they are not written in tumor DNA

May 10, 2018 | By Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Christopher Kemp

Dr. Christopher Kemp

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

DNA mutations are a hallmark of cancer. As the genetic mistakes add up, mutations can alter normal cellular pathways. Some of these changes may actually make the cancer cells susceptible to certain targeted drugs, but not all changes can be directly traced to a change in genetic code. Now, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center team led by Dr. Christopher Kemp and the late Dr. Eduardo "Eddie" Méndez shows that they can tease out tumor vulnerabilities even when they aren’t clearly linked to DNA mutations.

In a new paper in Clinical Cancer Research, the researchers analyzed in incredible detail the tumor cells from a man with head and neck cancer who agreed to donate his tumor tissue for research. The study shows that their approach, termed functional genomics, has the potential to deliver on the promise of precision oncology by highlighting potential drug targets in the patient’s tumor and helping distinguish the DNA changes that affect cancer survival from those that don’t. They also demonstrated the potential application for use in guiding a patient’s ongoing treatment and provided insight into vulnerabilities that might be found in other patients’ tumors.

The work is supported by the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Target Discovery and Development, or CTD2, initiative. CTD2, part of the Precision Medicine Initiative announced by former president Barack Obama, aims to uncover new therapeutic targets for cancer. The potential targets from this study will be publicly posted in the CTD2 database of new cancer targets, available to other researchers to further explore.

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Machine learning provides new insights into tumor suppression

Algorithm illuminated surprising metabolic effects of important cancer gene

May 7, 2018 | by Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

A woman in a lab coat uses a pipette in a lab. A computer and high-tech lab equipment are around her.

Dr. Daciana Margineantu, a staff scientist in Fred Hutch's Hockenbery Lab, works on an experiment to analyze cells' metabolic activity.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In a paper published today, a team of researchers from the Pacific Northwest used a machine learning algorithm to solve a challenging problem in cancer biology: identifying how an important but mysterious gene mutation contributes to cancer’s growth. The surprising answer has revealed potential new targets for cancer drug development, the team said.

headshot of Dr. Bruce Clurman

Fred Hutch's Dr. Bruce Clurman was a leader on the study.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

“The bottom line is that we need new ways to analyze the massive amounts of cancer genome data, and this [method] is one that looks like it can lead to exciting and unexpected discoveries, and maybe treatments someday,” said Dr. Bruce Clurman, one of the lead researchers on the work.

The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Clurman, executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and holder of the Hutch's Rosput Reynolds Endowed Chair, described the study and its implications in the following interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. Editor's notes are in italic.

You were looking at a molecule called Fbw7. What’s the problem you were trying to solve?

This is a protein that degrades a lot of other proteins that drive cancer. It’s called a tumor suppressor. One of the problems in studying it is the number of pathways it controls. It’s so complicated that it’s very hard to go through the pathways systematically one by one and try to understand what the biologic consequences of these mutations are in cancer, and even harder to go about therapeutically targeting them.

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