Annual Report 2014
By Deborah Bach and Linda Dahlstrom
Dr. Eric Holland aims to do something that hasn't happened in more than a half century: Find a better strategy for treating the deadliest brain tumors.
Holland specializes in glioblastoma, a brain cancer that spreads quickly and is notorious for its ability to weave inside brain tissue. That makes it almost impossible for surgeons to completely remove the tumors, called gliomas. The best available treatment — an aggressive combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — can cause brain damage, yet the tumors almost always come back within months.
Holland has dedicated his career to finding more effective therapies with fewer side effects. Last year, he and 11 members of his team left Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where over 13 years he built a renowned brain cancer program, to come to Fred Hutch, which is known for pioneering treatments.
His bold vision? Revolutionize how solid tumors in nearly a dozen organs are treated.
Shortly after arriving at Fred Hutch, Holland’s team launched the Solid Tumor Translational Research (STTR) effort, which brings together investigators and clinicians from Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is focused on developing precision treatments for tumors that include those affecting the bladder, brain, breast, colon, head and neck, lung, ovary, pancreas and prostate.
One of the keys for achieving his vision is to build a first-of-its-kind database that researchers and clinicians can use to extract meaningful, potentially lifesaving, information from reams of raw data on patients and their diseases. "No one has ever done what we are doing," said Holland, who directs the Hutch's Human Biology Division and the Nancy and Buster Alvord Brain Tumor Center at the University of Washington.
He's starting with the brain. At MSK, he created the world's most comprehensive brain tumor database. Based on tumor samples from hundreds of patients, the database contains a complete genetic profile of each tumor, plus details on how each patient was treated and how they responded. Now Holland is building a similar database using several thousand tissue samples collected by UW's Department of Neurological Surgery.
The goal is for every new patient's tumor to be profiled. Doctors can then compare that profile to other tumors in the database and select the most effective therapy.
"This is personalized medicine — making decisions that are tailored to the tumor," said Holland, who also is a practicing brain surgeon and a UW professor of neurological surgery.
In addition to using Big Data to start transforming how tumors are treated, Holland is investigating ways to make current treatments more effective by better understanding tumors.
Many glioblastoma patients are treated with radiation after surgery, but recently researchers realized that some cells in an immature state (similar to stem cells) are resistant. What's more, the cancer cells can toggle between being mature and immature; imagine water sloshing back and forth, Holland explains. But what if instead of administering radiation at uniform intervals where cycling cells were always at the same point each time, a staggered schedule was used to radiate cells when they were most vulnerable? If researchers like Holland can figure out the formula of how and when that's happening, radiation could be timed to increase the chances of killing every cancer cell. Holland has already shown staggered radiation can extend the lifespan of mice with glioblastomas.
These kinds of findings energize Holland. The thing he enjoys most about being a scientist, he said, is "looking for the truth — and sometimes finding it."
The truth of what he's learning in the lab — and the information the tumor database will provide — are just beginning to redefine how he, and many other physicians around the world, treat their cancer patients.
"I love surgery — operating on someone lets you directly improve their life," Holland said, "and I love research because it's a chance to have an impact on many, many more people."
Innovative solid tumor translational research, like that being led by Dr. Eric Holland, is accelerated by generous support from individual benefactors, including Eldon "Bud" Mount.
At Fred Hutch, our sights are set on a cancer-free future. This goal drives us to develop tomorrow's breakthroughs today. By supporting Fred Hutch, you can help propel our lifesaving research. Please give now.