Annual Report 2014

A tiny liquid droplet, magnified under a microscope

A tiny liquid droplet, magnified under a microscope, glowing green to indicate that it contains a T-cell gene. Drs. Jason Bielas and Harlan Robins first developed QuanTILfy using this droplet-based technology to count unique T-cell DNA molecules. Photo courtesy of the Bielas and Ghajar Labs

A 'perfect place' for innovation

Shared ideas lead to new test for cancer prognosis

By Susan Keown

Last year, a diverse group of collaborators at Fred Hutch demonstrated a new and powerful assay for predicting patients' outcomes after cancer.

Their assay, named QuanTILfy, counts and sorts cancer-fighting immune cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Patients with greater numbers of TILs tend to survive longer after diagnosis; however, there has never been a way to reliably and consistently measure TILs — until now.

"What [our research] shows is that for the first time, you can actually count the number of T cells that infiltrate into a tumor, reproducibly. That hasn’t been done before," said Dr. Jason Bielas, associate member of the Public Health Sciences and Human Biology Divisions at Fred Hutch. Bielas, a cancer geneticist, led the team that developed and tested this method for the first time, in ovarian cancer.

Now a valuable research tool, QuanTILfy has the potential to become a standardized clinical test for guiding treatment decisions. For example, a patient found to have fewer TILs (meaning a less favorable prognosis) might choose to start more aggressive treatments first, which could help prolong the patient's life.

Drs. Jason Bielas and Harlan Robins
Drs. Jason Bielas (left) and Harlan Robins (right) collaborated on a new tool for predicting prognosis in cancer patients. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

QuanTILfy leverages a technology co-created by team member Dr. Harlan Robins, a computational biologist and associate member of the Public Health Sciences and Human Biology Divisions at Fred Hutch. Robins' powerful genetic technology can map the unique surface markers of this diverse class of cells, which are otherwise difficult to characterize. The QuanTILfy team formed after Bielas heard Robins speak about his technology and the two began to seek a way to apply it to tumors.  

"We were in the perfect place," Bielas said about their Fred Hutch–based team. "I think this is a very collaborative environment: Ideas are shared even before they're published, just when they're beginning." Sharing research in its early stages provides scientists from different fields with opportunities to collaborate, Bielas said, which can open doors to new lines of inquiry that might otherwise go unexplored or lead to new insights more quickly by bringing fresh perspectives to challenging problems.

Now that QuanTILfy has proven its potential, researchers at Fred Hutch and at biomedical companies are using it in studies of TILs in many types of solid tumors, from melanoma to lung cancer. What they learn could offer an unprecedented view of the interactions between the immune system and tumors. This knowledge will help scientists design new therapeutic strategies — for example, strengthening an existing immune reaction or removing a tumor's protective barriers — that capitalize on each patient's unique situation.

Adaptive Biotechnologies, a firm co-founded by Robins and two Fred Hutch colleagues, holds the license for both QuanTILfy and its underlying genetic sequencing technology. Within the last year, Adaptive has significantly upgraded QuanTILfy's methodology and is leading further testing with the goal of launching a clinical version by 2015. Thanks to this unique partnership, built in the hallways and labs of Fred Hutch, we are seeing the birth of a tool that could soon help doctors and their patients make the most effective treatment choices.

Support from Chuck Goggio and other members of the President's Circle fuels the work of Fred Hutch scientists to develop groundbreaking new tools for cancer research and treatment, like QuanTILfy.


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