Spotlight on Scott Furlan

Using single cell genomics to help children who need bone marrow transplants

Scott Furlan, pediatric oncologist

Dr. Scott Furlan, a pediatric oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, believes he was drawn to bone marrow transplantation because of the sheer complexity of the challenge.

“In pediatric transplant, each patient has a dizzying array of complex problems, each of which often has multiple solutions” Furlan said.

To treat his young cancer patients, he has to sort through raft of possibilities and options, while helping parents navigate the frightful choices that lie ahead of them.

“In pediatrics, we have the opportunity to develop long-lasting relationships and extraordinary connections with patients and families. I still talk with many patients and their parents a decade later,” Furlan said.

His journey to pediatric medicine spanned the globe. He was born in New Zealand, his mother’s home country, where his American father went to university. When his father rejoined the U.S. Navy as a submarine training officer, Furlan went to high school in Bremerton, Wash., a ferry ride from Seattle. Furlan’s medical and scientific training took him to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas before he returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Scott Furlan
Dr. Scott Furlan Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

As a physician scientist at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, he became engaged in a growing network of partnerships with Fred Hutch immunologists and computational biologists. Just before COVID-19 upended research throughout the country, he accepted a post as assistant professor in the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, and he was among the first assigned to set up a lab in the historic, Steam Plant building that opened in October 2020.

There, he is keen to work in the collaborative, cross-disciplinary culture with both bench scientists carrying out molecular biology experiments and computational biologist who seek patterns in the mountains of data generated from patient care and laboratory studies alike.

“I am drawn to complexity. That’s why I like genetic data and systems biology.’’ Furlan said. His own special passion is single-cell genomics — the use of sophisticated devices for separating specimens into units of individual cells and subjecting these single cells to high-throughput genetic sequencing to reveal how diseased cells differ from healthy ones.

“We have a lot of projects in the single-cell space,” he said. “They involve studies in transplantation, graft-vs.-host disease and genetic variations within tumors.”

“My ultimate goal is to lead a translational research program that is able to bridge the gaps between scientific discoveries in immunotherapy and the children who would benefit from them.”

In his clinical practice, Furlan has treated many children who have contracted graft vs. host disease after bone marrow transplantation — a harrowing condition where the donated cells (the graft) treat the patient’s (the host’s) own tissues as foreign and attack them. That has led him to the use of single-cell technologies to understand, with an unprecedented level of detail, how transplanted immune cells respond to their new biological surroundings.

One technology he is using, single-cell transcriptomics, sorts through the biological record of transcripts. Transcripts are coded snippets of RNA — DNA’s close cousin — that are left behind like a pile of receipts to show which genes inside individual cells were activated or shut down in response to pathogens, tumors or drugs.

Whether it is transcriptomics or genomics, these sophisticated technologies generate enormous amounts of data. Answers lie within that data, but it takes a special set of skills such as advanced mathematics, machine learning and statistics to find them. That is exactly the laboratory culture being nurtured at the Steam Plant, where clinicians, immunologists and computer science experts work side by side.

Furlan aims to add to the steady improvement in outcomes for stem cell transplants and emerging T-cell therapies for children. “My ultimate goal,” Furlan said, “is to lead a translational research program that is able to bridge the gaps between scientific discoveries in immunotherapy and the children who would benefit from them.”

 

— By Sabin Russell, Dec. 7, 2020

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