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Good News at Fred Hutch

Solid-tumor faculty retreat fuels immunotherapy and precision-oncology research; Dr. Johnnie Orozco selected to participate in American Society of Hematology faculty-development program

July 2, 2015
Researchers at STTR retreat June 26

Graduate student Chad Toledo, left, talks with Dr. Maciej Mrugala, a Solid Tumor Translational Research faculty member and neuro-oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington, during the poster session at last week's STTR retreat.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Solid-tumor faculty retreat fosters collaboration, fuels immunotherapy and precision-oncology research

On June 26, more than 200 scientists and staff from Fred Hutch, University of Washington and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance gathered in downtown Seattle for the annual Solid Tumor Translational Research retreat. STTR chose “Making Precision Oncology Possible” as the theme for the full-day meeting, which featured a series of presentations highlighting research progress — and prospects — in immunotherapy and precision medicine. 

The common thread across the sessions was identifying opportunities for new collaborations at the interface of these two rapidly evolving fields. 

“There were over 20 projects presented that focused on immunotherapy, genomics, public health and computational oncology, and every presentation ended with a slide on what types of collaboration would get the project to the next level,” said Desert Horse-Grant, STTR’s director of strategy and operations. “This created a buzz of excitement throughout the retreat as people started to see where their expertise could be utilized on projects they were not even aware of.”

The focus on making connections was a natural extension of STTR’s emphasis on helping research teams ask big questions and bring a variety of expertise to bear in search of answers that will shape the future of care for cancer patients. For example, researchers are working toward powerful high-tech, big-data approaches to learn why targeted therapies work well in some patients but not others, who is most likely to benefit from this new generation of treatments, and how to design the next generation of approaches to be even better. 

STTR staff members also announced new resources available to the research community, such as biotools like Oncoscape and HIDRA, which are aimed at accelerating research; and assistance from the STTR administrative team in building road maps for specific funding opportunities. STTR leaders also announced they will soon be offering $1 million in funding over the next three years for three Programmatic Investment Grants — grants made possible by generous private contributions made at the 2014 Hutch Holiday Gala. Information about applying for those grants will be available later this month.

The day was capped off with a keynote speech by Dr. José Baselga, physician-in-chief and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Baselga shared results from several precision oncology-related initiatives and studies he and his colleagues have implemented, including clinical trials known as basket studies that enroll patients whose cancers originate in different organs but share a common molecular target. 

Horse-Grant was pleased with how well the retreat went. “Our faculty are busy — really busy — but I am so proud that they took the time out of their extraordinarily important clinic and research time to do something new, to get to know our emerging and very powerful solid-tumor community, and to show support to one another,” she said. “This is a wonderful time for our community and a very bad time for cancer as our opponent!”

Dr. Johnnie Orozco

Dr. Johnnie Orozco, a clinical research associate in the lab of Dr. Oliver Press, is using his ASH funding to study a novel approach for the transplantation of blood-forming stem cells.

Fred Hutch file

Dr. Johnnie Orozco selected to participate in American Society of Hematology faculty development program

The American Society of Hematology has announced Dr. Johnnie J. Orozco, a clinical research associate in the Fred Hutch lab of Dr. Oliver Press, as a participant in the 2015 ASH–Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program. The program is designed to increase the number of underrepresented-minority scholars in the field of hematology.

“There are a lot of people in this country that feel that diversifying your cadre of researchers is an important goal,” Orozco said. The son of immigrants, Orozco grew up in what he calls “Little Mexico” — Los Angeles — and did not learn English until third grade. “It’s validating to hear that they [the program sponsors] believe in my abilities, my potential and the impact of this work.”

The award, the result of a partnership between ASH and the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, grants Orozco four years of support and a total of $420,000 in funding. But “the most valuable part,” Orozco said, is the access to numerous “high-power” program-affiliated mentors across the country. Orozco’s assigned program mentors are Dr. Arturo Molina, an adjunct professor of hematology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and a vice president at Johnson & Johnson, and Dr. Griffin Rodgers, the director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

“Many of the mentors in this program are underrepresented minorities who have also addressed the hurdles often faced by investigators from underrepresented backgrounds and will help me overcome them when I face them, too,” Orozco said. “I feel fortunate to have such a rich source of mentors.”

Through this program, Orozco will study a novel approach for the transplantation of blood-forming stem cells. These transplants are often the only option for a cure for many patients with blood cancers, but current transplantation methods are highly toxic and not 100 percent effective.

Orozco’s research will test the potential of using targeted radioactive molecules — instead of highly toxic full-body irradiation — to prepare the body to receive a stem cell transplant. By targeting radioactive isotopes to the bone marrow only, he hopes to lessen some of the toxicity associated with pre-transplant conditioning.

He will study his targeted radiotherapy in the context of haploidentical, or partially matched, transplantation, in which transplant donor and recipient do not share all of the genetic markers used for matching. Haploidentical transplantation is particularly important for the many people of racial and ethnic minorities who are in need of a transplant but cannot find a fully matched donor among the disproportionately non-Hispanic white donors in transplant registries.

The ultimate goal of this research, Orozco wrote in his application to the program, is to “help define future therapeutic interventions to improve outcomes for patients with cancers of the blood.”

Orozco is one of two 2015 awardees, along with Dr. Jacqueline C. Barrientos of Hofstra North Shore-Long Island Jewish School of Medicine/The Feinstein Institute of Medical Research, who will study Richter’s syndrome.

“By supporting hematologists like Drs. Barrientos and Orozco through the ASH-AMFDP program, ASH aims to develop diverse leaders that will help move hematology forward,” said ASH President David A. Williams in a statement.

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