Fred Hutch’s mission to eliminate cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death influences the work our scientists do every day.
Our success as one of the world’s leading cancer research institutions stems from the commitment of our scientists and staff, the courage and strength of our patients and study participants, and the generosity of our benefactors. With this solid foundation, Hutch investigators have established a record of unparalleled excellence across a wide range of research disciplines.
Recent advances, like those detailed below, along with many others made possible by private contributions, pave the way for improving the lives of countless patients and their families.
In the largest study ever to examine the association of dietary fats and prostate cancer risk, Dr. Ted Brasky and colleagues found that men with the highest omega-3 levels have two-and-a-half-times the risk of developing aggressive, high-grade prostate cancer compared to men with the lowest omega-3 levels. Conversely, high levels of trans-fatty acids, which have been linked to inflammation and heart disease, were associated with a lower risk of high-grade prostate cancer. The results surprised the researchers, who expected to find just the opposite based on the observed link between chronic inflammation and several cancers. Their groundbreaking work sheds valuable new light on the complex relationship between nutrition and disease risk.
In the first large-scale study to examine the effect of radiation exposure on risk of developing more than one cancer, Dr. Christopher Li and colleagues found that, among atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, those who developed cancer also had a high risk of developing a second cancer. The findings suggest that cancer survivors with a history of radiation exposure should continue to be carefully monitored for second cancers. Research like this is essential to developing radiation protection limits and standards for occupational exposures, as well as planning for events such as nuclear accidents, nuclear war or “dirty bomb” terrorist attacks.
The most comprehensive report on colon cancer risk ever published concludes that red and processed meat increase risk of the disease and high-fiber foods offer protection. Dr. Anne McTiernan served on the nine-member expert panel that estimated that about 45 percent of colon cancer cases — more than 64,000 in the U.S. each year — could be prevented if we all ate more fiber-rich plant foods and less meat, drank less alcohol, moved more and stayed lean.
A study of Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska led by Drs. Zeina Makhoul and Alan Kristal suggests that a high intake of omega-3 fats from fish may help prevent obesity-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Although the Yup’ik Eskimos’ prevalence of overweight and obesity is similar to that of the general U.S. population, their prevalence of type 2 diabetes is significantly lower, and it appears from these new findings that their traditional, fish-rich diet may help to explain why. More research is needed, however, before scientists can offer recommendations about taking fish oil supplements or eating more fatty fish to those concerned about obesity-related diseases.
Fred Hutch’s Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention served as the primary statistical center for the first randomized clinical trial to definitively indicate that an HIV-infected individual can reduce sexual transmission of the virus to an uninfected partner by beginning antiretroviral therapy sooner. The study was conducted by the HIV Prevention Trials Network, a global partnership dedicated to reducing the transmission of HIV through biomedical, behavioral and structural interventions.
Hutch statisticians also led the data analysis of a clinical trial which found that giving infants a daily dose of the antiretroviral drug nevirapine for six months halved the risk of HIV transmission to the infants at age six months compared with giving infants the drug daily for six weeks. The new findings apply to mothers and infants in developing nations, where extended breastfeeding is recommended to help protect infants from potentially life-threatening infectious diseases. In the U.S., HIV-infected mothers are urged to feed their babies infant formula, not breast milk, because safe and affordable formula is available.
Women who have experienced hot flashes and other menopause symptoms may have a 50 percent lower risk of developing the most common forms of breast cancer compared to postmenopausal women who have never had such symptoms, according to a study by Dr. Christopher Li and colleagues. The team suspected the link because the hormones that play a role in the development of most breast cancers, namely estrogen and progesterone, are the same ones that, when their levels drop, trigger menopausal symptoms. If confirmed, the findings could help improve prevention strategies.
In two separate studies, Dr. Amanda Phipps and colleagues found that giving birth more times, having a higher body mass index, and being less physically active all increase the risk of triple-negative breast cancer, a rare but aggressive subtype of the disease. Although never giving birth appears to lower the risk of triple-negative breast cancer, the researchers found that women who remain childless have about a 40 percent higher risk of the more common estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer. Together the findings highlight the fact that breast cancer is really a complex combination of many diseases, which must all be better understood in order to enhance prevention, detection and treatment.
Discoveries enhance disease detection and treatment
Dr. Harlan Robins and his colleagues have developed a novel way to simultaneously sequence millions of T-cell receptors, a critical component of the human immune system. Using the technique, they compared immune system profiles from different people and were surprised to find much more overlap between individuals than expected. This discovery, along with the technology used to make it, could lead to new strategies for detecting and treating certain cancers and diseases of the immune system.
An international team of researchers, including Hutch investigators, made a critical advance in determining the cause of a common form of muscular dystrophy known as facioscapulohumeral dystrophy, or FSHD. They identified a DNA sequence in individuals with FSHD that causes a gene called DUX4 to be more active. Previous work has shown that this gene produces a protein that is toxic to muscle cells, and the current study indicates that it is likely to be key to developing FSHD. This finding points to potential new drug targets for treating — or even curing — FSHD, a progressive condition characterized by progressive wasting of muscles in the upper body.
Dr. Chu Chen and colleagues have identified a set of four genes that signals when oral cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. Doctors currently use tumor size as an indicator of potential cancer spread, or metastasis, but the method is imperfect and can lead to unnecessary surgeries to remove lymph nodes. Dr. Chen’s discovery that the four-gene signature outperforms tumor size as a predictor of metastasis among patients with no clinical signs of disease spread could give doctors a more accurate tool, reducing the number of false positives and sparing patients unnecessary surgeries.
Many patients who undergo bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants experience declines in mental and fine motor skills, or “chemobrain”, due to the toll of their disease and its treatment. Dr. Karen Syrjala recently found that while most patients can expect a return to normal motor and memory function within five years, some deficits in fine motor skills and verbal memory may persist. The findings will help improve care by giving both patients and their health care providers a clearer understanding of what to expect over the course of long-term survivorship.
A decade of work by Hutch researchers to refine marrow and stem cell transplantation for patients with blood cancers has significantly reduced the risk of treatment-related complications and death. A recent study compared patient outcomes in the mid-‘90s with those a decade later and revealed a 60 percent reduction in the risk of death within 200 days of transplant and a 41 percent reduction in the risk of overall mortality at any time after transplant. The data show clearly that the collective efforts of our dedicated researchers have significantly boosted the chances of long-term survival for our patients.
Cell biologist Dr. Valeri Vasioukhin and colleagues have discovered a new drug target for squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer. Researchers found that a protein called alpha-catenin acts as a tumor suppressor by regulating a second protein known as Yap1, which, if activated, can cause cancer. The discovery adds to scientists’ understanding of how cells control their growth and opens the door to new therapies for squamous cell carcinoma that specifically target Yap1.
A recent discovery by Drs. Jonathan Cooper and Yves Jossin that reveals how cells migrate in the developing brain could also shed light on how other types of cells, including cancer cells, travel within the body. The researchers unraveled how two proteins work in concert to orchestrate the migration of neurons as they form the specialized layers of the cerebral cortex. Since similar proteins may also play a role in the movement of other types of normal or cancer cells, this finding could lead to a better understanding of cancer metastasis.
Oncologist and researcher Dr. Muneesh Tewari received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for scientists starting their independent research careers. The award recognizes individuals whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for strengthening America’s leadership in science. Dr. Tewari’s innovative work with small molecules called microRNAs has the potential to improve early detection and treatment for many cancers, including prostate, breast, lung and ovarian cancers.
Systems biologist Dr. Roger Brent and molecular biologist Dr. Robert Eisenman have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society. Dr. Brent studies how cells represent and transmit information, processes that, when they go awry, can contribute to cancer development. Dr. Eisenman has made seminal contributions to our understanding of how normal cells become cancerous.
Dr. Dan Gottschling has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors accorded to U.S. scientists and engineers. Dr. Gottschling uses baker’s yeast as a model organism to explore the relationship between cancer and aging, a problem that has long vexed biologists. Dr. Gottschling becomes the eighth Center researcher to receive this distinction.
Two dozen researchers from the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium received first-ever Team Science awards from the International Society of Biological Therapy of Cancer. The team was recognized for its major contributions to research and clinical translation of cancer immunotherapy, particularly T-cell-based therapies, vaccine therapies, novel agents to boost T-cell immunity, and blood stem cell transplantation.
An internationally renowned and interdisciplinary team of Fred Hutch and University of Washington researchers and clinicians have won the American Association for Cancer Research’s Team Science Award. During their two-decade collaboration, the investigators, led by the Center’s Dr. Denise Galloway, have played a pivotal role in increasing understanding of human papillomavirus and in developing the HPV vaccine. Their work has the potential to prevent more than half a million HPV-associated cancers each year worldwide, including cervical and other genital-tract cancers as well as head and neck cancers.
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