Good News: $475K gift fuels expansion of antibody tech; Hansen honored for BMT work; Senate passes 21st Century Cures Act

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Dec. 8, 2016
Cures Act

House Speaker Paul Ryan gives a thumbs-up to Max Schill, 7, who has Noonan Syndrome. Lawmakers who also were present for signing of the 21st Century Cures Act included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Congress passes 21st Century Cures Act, propelling work to end cancer

The U.S. Senate's approval Wednesday of the 21st Century Cures Act will help drive the top goal of the Cancer Moonshot ― speeding development of new cancer cures, said Dr. Nancy Davidson, president of the American Association for Cancer Research, or AACR, and senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The Senate passed the bill in a 94-five vote. The House passed a nearly identical version on Dec. 1, voting 392-26. President Barack Obama, who said the Cures Act brings the world "one step closer to ending cancer as we know it," is expected to sign the bill into law. 

The bill provides $4.8 billion in funding to the National Institutes of Health to pay for an array of medical research programs, including $1.8 billion over seven years to bolster cancer science through the Moonshot, an initiative launched and led by Vice President Joe Biden. Senators also approved an amendment to rename the Moonshot portion of the bill after Biden’s son, Beau, who died from brain cancer in May 2015. It is now called the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot.

"This targeted, multi-year funding will help support the 10 cutting-edge scientific recommendations identified by the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel for realizing the Vice President’s goal of achieving 10 years of progress within the next five years," Davidson said in an AACR statement co-authored by Dr. Margaret Foti, chief executive officer of the AACR.

They specifically called out Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., for their "leadership and unwavering commitment to ensuring the passage of the bill."

More bipartisan backing came from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., and Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. DelBene, a supporter of the effort since its inception, attended the Hutch Holiday Gala on Saturday. On Thursday, Cantwell called out Fred Hutch's immunotherapy science in the Congressional Record when she addressed the act.  

"The bill’s funding commitment to Vice President Biden's Cancer Moonshot will advance groundbreaking research at organizations like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center," Cantwell noted in the Congressional Record. "By directing the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, new cancer treatments can save lives for patients who may not respond to traditional interventions." 

And Davidson said the 37,000 members of the AACR, who include laboratory researchers, physician-scientists, other health care professionals, and patient advocates, now look forward to Obama signing the legislation into law.

Dr Nancy Davidson

Dr. Nancy Davidson

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

"We stand ready to work with next year’s Congress and President-elect Trump’s administration to continue our efforts to seize on the unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the pace of our scientific efforts for the benefit of the millions of Americans and their loved ones touched by cancer," Davidson and Foti wrote. 

The Cures Act also provides $1.4 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative. That Obama-backed project aims to collect genetic data from 1 million U.S. volunteers. That information is intended to be used to create new treatments.

Davidson, who joined the Hutch on Dec. 1, is also president and executive director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch's clinical care partner; and professor and head of the Division of Medical Oncology of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

― Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service 

Dr. Ben Hoffstrom

Dr. Ben Hoffstrom

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Murdock Charitable Trust gift fuels expansion of Antibody Technology Resource

The Antibody Technology Resource lab at Fred Hutch is poised to expand, thanks to new support from the Vancouver, Washington–based M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

The $475,000 grant is matched by more than $550,000 from the Hutch’s privately supported Hartwell Innovation Fund to further grow the facility’s instrumentation.

“Over the past five years Fred Hutch’s Antibody Technology Resource has been making innovative strides in building a cutting-edge antibody-discovery platform,” said Dr. Ben Hoffstrom, director of Antibody Technology. The trust’s gift “will enable a long-range vision for antibody technology at Fred Hutch.”

As a core resource, the lab offers custom service and expertise to researchers at Fred Hutch and other institutions in the region. Its specialty is generating and screening monoclonal antibodies, proteins made by the immune system that attach to any foreign molecular target. Due to their natural ability to bind to particular targets, antibodies have a wide range of applications, including in diagnostic tests and as cancer-fighting drugs.

“The new instrumentation will not only double our overall capacity, it will allow us to screen many more antibody-producing hybridoma cells,” Hoffstrom explained (referring to certain lab-created hybrid cells used as antibody factories). That will, in turn, “increase the likelihood of success in finding antibodies for specific applications, such as diagnostic tools for histology or potential immunotherapy reagents.”

With the new capacity, Hoffstrom said, the Antibody Technology Resource can better integrate with other core resources at the Hutch, particularly the Molecular Design and Therapeutics lab, which designs and produces custom proteins using the same software and similar automation. With such integration, Hoffstrom envisions forming an “antibody drug-discovery pipeline” to speed the development of targeted new drugs.

“This is really critically important for the Hutch,” said Dr. Colin Correnti, director of protein sciences for the Molecular Design and Therapeutics core. This milestone is the culmination of several years of effort for the two core labs, Correnti said, to create a “one-stop shop” at Fred Hutch for antibody-based drug discovery from start to finish, just like at a biotech company.

“It is incredibly impactful and enabling to be able to do that ― it’s not something we’ve ever been able to do here at the Hutch,” Correnti said.

The centerpiece of the new instrumentation is a robot that allows the antibody core’s entire antibody-screening process to be completely automated, operating without human intervention. Once this custom workstation is installed in early 2017, Hoffstrom said, the core will be able to work around the clock to generate potentially thousands of antibodies at a time for a particular project and conduct screens to find the small handful that are likely to work best to target a specific molecule.

“Now, the way we do [screening] is we have [processes] operating independently with a lot of manual intervention at each of those stages,” Hoffstrom said. The new instrumentation “is going to enable us to launch screens at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, then harvest the data the next day.”

The instruments will also add new automated capacities to the core lab’s operations, including the ability to isolate the DNA that codes for particular antibodies. Specialized new software will integrate the vast amount of data generated by the system and allow the team to analyze each step in the process, which will facilitate further optimization of the platform.

The antibody core’s clients currently include scientists throughout the Hutch and the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium, biotech companies, and several universities and research institutes primarily on the West Coast. Clients are working on a range of projects, including an HIV vaccine and cancer-killing engineered immune cells.

Hoffstrom said that the core provides more extensive screening than commercial labs, screening for antibodies to up to five targets at once, for the price of one. And while some antibodies are already commercially available to researchers, he explained, they often do not actually bind specifically to the molecule they are supposed to target, making custom antibodies useful in many different areas of research.

“That is ubiquitous with a number of different antibodies in the field,” Hoffstrom said. “Often research teams are using suboptimal reagents and they don’t realize that we can make better antibodies for slightly more than the cost of the ones that are currently available.” 

― Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service 

John A. Hansen

John A. Hansen

Fred Hutch file photo

Immunogeneticist Dr. John A. Hansen honored for work on bone marrow transplantation

The American College of Physicians, a national organization of internists, recently named Dr. John Hansen of Fred Hutch the latest recipient of an award that recognizes outstanding work in medical science.

Called the American College of Physicians Award for Outstanding Work in Science as Related to Medicine, the honor has, since 1958, recognized scientists whose research made an impact on the practice of medicine. Hansen was announced as the winner in November and will receive the award at the organization’s annual meeting in March.

“I’m humbled and really very pleased and honored that they are making this award,” said Hansen, chosen for recognition of his work in bone marrow transplantation. A leader of the Human Immunogenetics Program at Fred Hutch, Hansen has made substantial contributions to the understanding of tissue-type genetics and transplantation biology.

Hansen has been working in the transplant field since its early days more than 40 years ago, when bone marrow transplantation was still highly experimental. At that time, little was known about the molecules, called HLAs, or human leukocyte antigens, which determine tissue type, a key factor in transplant success, Hansen said.

Since then, he and colleagues have helped to work out the biology and genetics of the HLA system and applied innovative new analytical tools to improve matching between donors of blood-forming cells and the patients with blood disorders who rely on transplants of the cells to save their lives. Better matching means a better chance the transplant will be a success and a lower chance of major complications.

Hansen made fundamental contributions to the development of transplantation between unrelated donors and patients, demonstrating the feasibility of this type of transplant and helping to improve it. He was also a founding director of the national marrow donor registry, an organization that manages volunteer donors and facilitates the collection of marrow and blood cells for transplantation.

“It’s amazing, looking back, how long it took to sort out the various issues,” Hansen said. “Our center has been at the forefront of this field since the early 1970s. I’m really thrilled and proud that our team here has been able to be part of this process for so long and make important contributions.”

In addition to his appointments at Fred Hutch, where he is also a member of the Clinical Research Division, Hansen is professor of medical oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, medical director of the Clinical Immunogenetics Laboratory at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and an attending physician in the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium.

― Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service 

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 


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