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Researchers led by Dr. Ulrike Peters identify six new gene locations for colorectal cancer risk; Drs. Tera Levin and Alistair Russell named Damon Runyon Fellows

July 23, 2015
Dr. Ulrike Peters

Dr. Ulrike Peters led a group of researchers that identified six new locations in the human genome where people could be more at risk for colorectal cancer.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Researchers identify six new gene locations for colorectal cancer risk

An international team of researchers has identified six new locations in the human genome where people could be more at risk for colorectal cancer. The findings, based on an analysis of numerous independent studies including more than 18,000 cases of colorectal cancer, were published this month in the journal Nature Communications.

“These findings are partly pointing to new pathways or genes that provide new knowledge about the underlying causes of colorectal cancer,” said senior author Dr. Ulrike Peters of Fred Hutch's Public Health Sciences Division and the University of Washington School of Public Health.

The researchers reported a 9 to 16 percent increase in the odds of developing colorectal cancer for each risk variant a person carries, compared to the risk of a person not carrying the genetic variant. A person can carry no, or one or two, risk variants.

“We are identifying more and more of these common genetic variants,” Peters said, “and we can now start to use these variants to define the genetic risk profile of individuals.” Such information can be used to identify those who can benefit from earlier or more frequent screening, such as colonoscopy or stool blood tests, Peters said, while those with very low risk can wait until they are older to get screened. “Overall,” she added, “this can lead to improved early detection of colorectal cancer, when treatment of this severe disease is improved.”

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the United States; about 4.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime.

The research team included institutions from Australia, Canada, China, Germany and Israel and was co-led by UW/Fred Hutch and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

The genome-wide association study combined data from the Colorectal Cancer Transdisciplinary Study, the Colon Cancer Family Registry, the Molecular Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer Study and the Genetics and Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer Consortium. “This is only possible through very large international collaborations of many studies,” Dr. Peters said. 

Original UW SPH press release here.

Dr. Tera Levin

Fred Hutch postdoc Dr. Tera Levin intends to study how bacteria can alter biological processes in their animal hosts.

Fred Hutch file

Tera Levin, Alistair Russell named Damon Runyon Fellows

Fred Hutch postdoctoral researchers Drs. Tera Levin and Alistair Russell were awarded prestigious Damon Runyon Fellowships, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation announced last Friday. 

Levin and Russell, of the Hutch's Basic Sciences Division, are two of 16 researchers selected by the Damon Runyon Foundation for the four-year award after a nationwide search. They will both receive a $200,000 award to support their work.

"The Fellowship encourages the nation’s most promising young scientists to pursue careers in cancer research by providing them with independent funding ... to work on innovative projects," said the foundation's announcement.

With her award, Levin intends to study how resident bacteria can alter fundamental biological processes in their animal hosts, including cell division and development. By establishing new genetic approaches in Dr. Harmit Malik’s lab, Levin will investigate the bacterial genes used to alter host biology as well as the factors they interact with in the cells of their fruit fly hosts. 

These studies build upon Levin's graduate work in Dr. Nicole King’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where she discovered the gene that drives colony formation in choanoflagellates, the closest living relative of animals. The special rosette-shaped colonies formed by these water-dwelling creatures are thought to be an evolutionary precursor to the development of multicellular animals.

"Tera is a fearless researcher who is tackling a very important but difficult scientific problem," said Malik, Levin's research mentor. "Her interdisciplinary skills and the local expertise of researchers makes me confident that she will greatly advance our understanding of how microbes continue to influence our basic cell biology.”

Dr. Alistair Russell

Fred Hutch postdoc Dr. Alistair Russell will examine how variability in cells and viruses can influence the outcome of viral infections.

Fred Hutch file

With his award, Russell will examine how variability in individual cells and viruses can influence the outcome of viral infections. He will use cutting-edge genomics approaches to examine how single cells respond to influenza infection and determine the genetic and transcriptional factors that shape this response. 

"Alistair is an extremely creative researcher whose Ph.D. research with Joseph Mougous already helped change the way that we think about how microbes interact with each other," said Dr. Jesse Bloom, Russell's research mentor. "The work he is embarking on now has the potential to similarly reshape our views of how viruses interact with their hosts."

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation is a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the careers of exceptional early-career scientists. Other current Damon Runyon Fellows at the Hutch are Drs. Matt MillerAntoine Molaro and Peter Skene.


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