Sometimes Dr. McGarry Houghton wakes up the middle of the night thinking of neutrophils.
It’s probably safe to say most other people wouldn’t include these immune cells on a top-10 list of dream-worthy material.
But if they saw what Houghton sees, maybe they would.
The doctor and scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center is a leading expert in these poorly understood immune cells and their role in lung cancer, the deadliest cancer in the U.S. His research is demonstrating how neutrophils actually help cancers grow, rather than fight them. And his studies are paving the way for potential new therapies that could put an end to this betrayal, allowing the immune system to rally against cancers.
“I’m trying to figure these suckers out,” Houghton says with traces of his native Oklahoman drawl. “In all the time I’ve given to it I haven’t quite been able to put all the pieces together. But it’s accomplishable.”
“[Neutrophils are] not making sophisticated decisions about their environments — they react to them,” Houghton explained.
Houghton, holder of the Satya and Rao Remala Family Endowed Chair, didn’t intend to become an expert in cancer biology. His medical training is in noncancerous lung diseases like emphysema, in which the lungs’ air sacs are damaged, typically by long-term cigarette smoking. He began his research career studying the neutrophils and other immunological links that connect tobacco smoke exposure and emphysema in mice.
Early on, a colleague asked for his help with a mouse study about smoking and lung cancer biology. Houghton didn’t know much about cancer at the time. So when he looked under the microscope at those mouse tumors, what popped out at him was not the cancer cells. It was the neutrophils. Lots and lots of neutrophils.
The cancer biologists who had been studying the same mice for years had never reported neutrophils in these tumors. They simply had glossed over the cells as background noise. But Houghton’s eyes were focused differently.
What were those cells doing there, he wondered?
His career, and his dreams, would never be the same.
— By Susan Keown, updated May 20, 2023