Best of 2015

Hutch Magazine

Best of 2015: We look back at some of the top moments  and accomplishments during Fred Hutch’s 40th year

Story by Fred Hutch Staff
Illustrations by Suzette Korduner

The sign outside the lab is simple. It’s a white, 8-by-11-inch piece of paper with black words printed on it. Read what it says and the entire world opens up: “Suddenly, everything is possible.”

For four decades, researchers at Fred Hutch have been refusing to accept limits, working passionately and tirelessly to make the once impossible real. Sometimes it’s a moment that can make the difference — a conversation that sparks a new way of thinking, a visit from someone that launches a partnership, or a discovery under a microscope that changes everything.

These moments happen every day in ways big and small at Fred Hutch. So, as we wrap up 2015, our 40th year, we want to throw open our doors and invite you in to learn about some of our greatest moments and memories of this year, and to look forward to what’s to come.

Launching new research: Fresh explorations of cancer, HIV and more

We often report on recent, but past, accomplishments. But science is a continuum, with new laboratory experiments underway even as the latest findings go to press. Here’s a sampling of the research kicked off (or soon to launch), thanks to new grant support received this year:

  • Breast cancer researcher Dr. Cyrus Ghajar is delving into a new research collaboration to understand how dormant, disseminated breast cancer cells may lead to metastasis, or cancer spread — and how to prevent it — thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • HIV researcher Dr. Julie Overbaugh was named a “Director’s Pioneer Avant-Garde Scientist” by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Her new title also comes with research funding that Overbaugh will use to develop a better laboratory model of HIV infection.
  • Transplantation biologist Dr. Rainer Storb received a five-year grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to improve treatments for patients with congenital immune and blood diseases.
  • Gene therapy expert Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem was also awarded a five-year NHLBI grant this year. Kiem, along with the University of Southern California’s Dr. Paula Cannon, will lead a project to study next-generation gene and cell therapies to control and cure HIV.
  • Cancer prevention researcher Dr. Polly Newcomb is now investigating a newly recognized and aggressive type of colorectal cancer, thanks to an award from the National Institutes of Health.
  • Five dairy organizations helped diet and cancer prevention scientist Dr. Mario Kratz launch a study into whether full-fat dairy products may prevent metabolic syndrome, which includes abdominal obesity and high cholesterol.

Lowering the risk of transplant complications

Dr. Marie Bleakley, a blood stem cell transplant specialist and immunology researcher, reported in June that filtering naive T cells out of a stem cell donation lowered the risk of graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD, among transplant recipients. The illness arises when donor cells attack the patient’s healthy cells, leading to rashes, vomiting and, sometimes, death.

In a clinical trial at Fred Hutch, among 35 leukemia patients infused with filtered stem cells, only 9 percent showed chronic GVHD, compared with up to 50 percent of those who don’t get filtered stem cells.

Findings from a separate Hutch-based study published this year could also soon help lower the risk of GVHD for patients who receive stem cell transplants at our treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Mismatches between patients and donors in a tissue-type marker called HLA-DPB1 have long been known to contribute to GVHD risk, but this marker is difficult to match. Dr. Effie Petersdorf and her colleagues figured out a way to identify “permissible mismatches” in HLA-DPB1 to lower GVHD risk. Our transplant program will be the first in the world to incorporate additional genetic testing based on these findings.

Madame Peng Liyuan, first lady of China, visits Fred Hutch

Madame Peng Liyuan, first lady of China, visits Fred Hutch

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Madame Peng Liyuan, the wife of China President Xi Jinping, made a historic visit to Fred Hutch in September. Peng, a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, met with Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Chairs and Trustees Bill and Melinda Gates, Nobel Prize–winner Dr. Linda Buck and other key researchers during the one-hour visit. Peng and her delegation also toured a lab where critical HIV vaccine research is being done. “In the future I look forward to more opportunities to work together and contribute shared wisdom on global health challenges,” she said.

A key HIV vaccine clinical trial launches in South Africa

The Fred Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network in February began a clinical trial in South Africa building on the vaccine from the so-called Thai trial, the first to show modest protection against HIV infection. The 2009 Thai study found that vaccine recipients had a 31 percent lower risk of becoming infected with HIV compared to placebo recipients. The vaccine regimen being tested now has been modified to be more protective and longer lasting. Early next year, researchers will examine whether the new regimen is inducing the expected immune responses and, if so, expand to a larger trial that could lead to the first licensed HIV vaccine.
 

New Fred Hutch spinoff commercializes cord blood stem cell therapies

Dr. Colleen Delaney has seen too many patients suddenly take a turn for the worse after a transplant that was supposed to be lifesaving. To protect them, she developed an umbilical cord blood stem cell product now being commercialized by a new spinoff, Nohla Therapeutics. The company’s launch was announced in December. The product is designed to reduce the risk of complications, such as infections and bleeding, in a wide range of patients, not just those who receive a cord blood transplant.

“No matter where they are, no matter what their [tissue] typing is … I want this to be something everyone can get,” Delaney said.

Fighting back against one of the most deadly cancers

Dr. Sunil Hingorani and his colleagues are advancing toward their goal of saving more lives from pancreatic cancer. This year, the Hingorani Lab discovered a molecular “traffic cop” that seems to control how pancreatic cancers grow and spread. Testing for this molecule could help predict the behavior of a patient’s cancer and help doctors choose the best treatment. One of those treatments could eventually be patients’ own cells. Hingorani and immunotherapy researchers Drs. Phil Greenberg and Ingunn Stromnes found that engineered immune cells killed pancreatic cancer in mice and greatly extended survival. Now, they’re planning a clinical trial of this promising therapy.
 

Physical fundraising: Thousands hit roads, trails and famous peaks

Obliteride

Photo courtesy of Obliteride


To help defeat cancer, Fred Hutch backers logged a world’s worth of hard yards this year — enough, in fact, to circle the planet three times. They collectively pedaled more than 63,000 miles, ran or walked 10,500 miles on city streets and scaled 6,155 miles of mountain. That was the group workload across three annual fundraising events that together raised more than $3 million for ongoing research at the Hutch:

  • Obliteride — Fred Hutch’s third annual fundraising bike ride included nearly 1,200 riders who traversed, as a group, more than 63,000 miles across Western Washington in early August. The wheeled rally brought in $2.65 million in donations, an Obliteride record.
  • Climb to Fight Cancer — The Fred Hutch event included ascents up six peaks in three countries. Together, 65 climbers scaled 500,000 vertical feet — not counting the descents. To do this, they took a collective 185 personal vacation days from their jobs. And they raised $367,300 to support Hutch research.
  • Shore Run/Walk — At this June event in Seattle, 961 participants ran or walked a 10K, another 1,449 people ran or walked a 5K, and 168 kids completed a half-mile route. All donations and a portion of the event proceeds benefitted the Hutch - a total of $43,000.

Expanding immunotherapy trials offer hope

Hutch researchers are harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems to fight their cancers — even cancers that have proved intractable to many other treatments.

This year, scientists have enrolled patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sarcoma and lung cancer into trials of cutting-edge, customized therapies that train immune cells called T cells to home in on and kill their cancer cells. This fall, Hutch scientists also enrolled their first pediatric patient — a girl with leukemia — into one of these trials. As our immunotherapy trials expand, so does the hope they offer to patients of all ages who are out of other treatment options.

Tumor Paint reaches clinical trial for children with brain cancer

Tumor Paint

Photo courtesy of Project Violet

A molecule derived from scorpion venom that illuminates cancer cells is getting its first test on brain cancer. Enrollment launched in June for a Phase 1 clinical trial of “Tumor Paint,” BLZ-100, developed by Blaze Bioscience based on technology licensed from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. The trial, at Seattle Children’s, is open to infants and patients up to age 30. The promise of Tumor Paint — invented by Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Jim Olson — is better detection and surgical removal of solid tumors without harming healthy tissue.

Fred Hutch’s HIV research featured in HBO VICE documentary

An hour-long VICE special report, “Countdown to Zero,” debuted on HBO on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, and prominently featured HIV research at Fred Hutch.

Dr. Larry Corey, president and director emeritus and principal investigator of the Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network, described the “explosion of knowledge” that is offering hope of a licensed HIV vaccine and an AIDS-free generation.

Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division Director Dr. Julie McElrath explained the workings of the HVTN laboratory, which she oversees, and introduced Rod Fichter, a volunteer in her long-running study of people who are infected with HIV but whose bodies control the virus without medication.

HBO’s correspondents traveled to South Africa to interview the HVTN’s Dr. Glenda Gray, who oversees vaccine clinical trials in the region hardest hit by the pandemic. The program also featured Timothy Ray Brown, the only person known to be cured of HIV, and Dr. Gero Hütter, the German doctor who cured him. In February, both visited Hutch-based defeatHIV, a research consortium that is using Brown’s case as a blueprint for genetically engineering a cure.

A block party and a good time for all

balloons

What better way to celebrate 40 years of cures than to throw a block party? We did, and more than 1,000 neighbors and Fred Hutch family members dropped in for a festive September afternoon.

There were food trucks, games and prizes, and a science fair with exhibits staffed by our own researchers. The Mariner Moose, the mascot of Seattle’s Major League Baseball team, came by to meet kids of all ages; and guests could take a walk through CASPER, the colossal inflatable colon, for a hands-on lesson about colon cancer prevention.


Flu in flight

  Illustration by Owen Curtsinger / Fred Hutch


Hutch Holiday Gala turns 40, breaks $100 million

Seattle’s premier black-tie event began as a small dinner party in 1975, hosted by the Grace Heffernan Arnold Guild to honor its namesake. Today, the Hutch Holiday Gala is the largest Fred Hutch fundraising event of the year and one of the most successful of its kind in the country.

Over four decades, our Gala benefactors have poured an incredible amount of support into lifesaving research. This year, the cumulative total raised at this event passed the $100 million mark — a stunning milestone in funding for work that impacts lives around the world.

New technique to pinpoint randomness of life — and disease

Drs. Roger Brent and Alexander Mendenhall have developed a method to see and measure how genes turn on and off in single cells in a living animal — and to track that activity through the animal’s life. This is the first time a gene’s activity has been reproducibly measured in a live adult  animal — the microscopic roundworm  Caenorhabditis elegans.

The scientists will use the technique to study how molecular randomness contributes to physical differences — or disease — in organisms with the same underlying genetics. For example, not all women with cancer-associated mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 develop breast cancer, but it’s not clear why.

Uganda celebrates the opening of UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre

UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

The Uganda Cancer Institute and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in May opened a new, state-of-the-art home for their decade-long alliance. The UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre for the first time brings all of the alliance’s work under one roof, accommodating 20,000 outpatient visits a year as well as housing laboratories for research and rooms for training and conferences. It is the first comprehensive cancer center jointly built by U.S. and African cancer institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. The celebration in Kampala included dancers from every corner of the country and speeches by dignitaries, including Uganda President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Dr. Gary Gilliland becomes Fred Hutch’s new president and director

Dr. Gary Gilliland

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Renowned physician-scientist Dr. Gary Gilliland became Fred Hutch’s new president and director when he took the helm on Jan. 2. His curriculum vitae is bursting with accomplishments: 20 years on the faculty at Harvard; a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; director of the leukemia program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center; senior vice president and global oncology franchise head at Merck Research Laboratories; vice dean and vice president of precision medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. But for Gilliland, all of it comes down to a passion for finding cures for patients. Fred Hutch is poised to do that, he said. “Everything I’ve done in my career has pointed here.”

 

Base 2 Space raised emotions — and a half million dollars

A spiraling line of nearly 1,200 people trudged 52 stories skyward during the Base 2 Space Climb in October, raising more than $500,000 for cancer research at Fred Hutch.

The first year of the Space Needle event drew cancer survivors, the family members of cancer patients who’ve died and folks who simply wanted to scale an iconic monument in the name of eradicating a disease. Participants came from 21 states and two Canadian provinces. The open-air ascent covered 832 stairs.

Each participant had to raise at least $250. The top 10 fundraisers get to walk the Needle’s “halo,” the outermost ring, in April.

Gene therapy trial offers new hope in Fanconi anemia

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

This summer, a 10-year-old boy named Behzad Hathiram traveled from India to Fred Hutch to become the first child in the U.S. to receive a new gene therapy for Fanconi anemia. A faulty gene causes this inherited blood disorder, which can lead to cancer and early death. In this trial, the research team is using a modified version of HIV to insert a functional copy of the defective gene into participants’ marrow cells. After reinfusion, the hope is that the corrected cells overcome the inherited defect. “The goal is to, eventually, cure the patient,” said investigator Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem.

Donor meets her match at Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Reunion

Savanna Acosta

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

A tear-evoking embrace entwining a Canadian mom and a Tacoma, Washington, toddler capped the seventh Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Reunion — offering a precious glimmer of the Fred Hutch-pioneered science that’s impacted millions of lives.

At the July 25 event, marrow donor Pam Dicaire grasped the meaning of her gift. After traveling 3,500 miles from New Brunswick, she met and scooped up her stem cell recipient, Savanna Acosta. Born with a severe immune disorder, Savanna, 2, now is healthy. Dicaire cried and smiled, as did many in the crowd of several hundred who attended the Hutch-hosted celebration at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.
 

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