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Alternative reality: Patients who spurn chemo for natural remedies

What oncologists do – and say – when their patients choose holistic treatments over conventional care

May 27, 2016 | By Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service

Cassandra Callender made headlines when she was diagnosed with cancer as a teen and refused treatment. Since she was a minor, a court ruled that she must undergo chemo.

The breast cancer was curable. The oncologist suggested chemo, radiation and surgery. The patient, 28, chose an alternative route – trips to Mexico for coffee enemas and vitamin infusions.

They didn’t work. About two years after her diagnosis, the cancer was in her liver and no longer curable. But it was treatable – with chemotherapy. This time, the patient agreed.

“For my whole team, that kind of broke our hearts because she’s young, lovely, beautiful, and we just thought, oh shoot, now it has spread and we wish we could have avoided it,” said Dr. Julie Gralow, that patient’s oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, clinical care partner for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

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Filling in the ‘missing biology’ of breast cancer

Study demonstrates important role of proteomics in personalized medicine

May 25, 2016 | By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Mandy Paulovich

Dr. Mandy Paulovich, an oncologist and cancer geneticist at Fred Hutch, was one of the study's leaders.

Fred Hutch file photo

Thanks to the genomic revolution begun by the Human Genome Project, we now hold the secrets of cancer’s DNA in our hands. But genomics alone does not offer enough pieces to complete the puzzle of personalized medicine for cancer. New research published Wednesday in the journal Nature demonstrates the power of filling in those missing pieces of cancer biology ― proteins.

The first large-scale study of its kind in breast cancer, the research demonstrates how proteomics, or studying all the proteins in a given cell, can reveal which of the many mutations in a tumor are actually driving a cancer’s development and suggest new targets for personalized cancer-killing drugs.

“Not all of those mutations at the DNA level are translated forward to the protein level where they actually affect the cancer cell,” said Dr. Amanda (Mandy) Paulovich, one of the study’s leaders and an oncologist and cancer geneticist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “So what proteomics does is add another layer of clarity as to which of those DNA changes might be functionally important and worth targeting for new treatments in patients.”

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A new handle on research

The social media-powered, patient-driven Metastatic Breast Cancer Project aims to speed cures

May 24, 2016 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Corrie Painter from the Broad Institute talks with Fred Hutch writer Diane Mapes about why researchers should embrace social media. Video by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

When Corrie Painter was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, she did what any other doctoral student in biochemistry would do: She looked up her disease on PubMed, the giant online database of more than 26 million medical papers.

What she found was grim. Many people with angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the blood vessel lining, survived for only about six months beyond diagnosis. Fewer than 30 percent were alive after five years. And because the type of cancer is so rare — only about 300 people are diagnosed each year worldwide — there were no standard treatment protocols.

Devastated, Painter, then 36 and the mother of two young girls, turned to a source not many of her science colleagues consulted: Facebook. She found a Facebook group made up of others with her disease. It had just eight members, but here’s what counted: They were all alive.

“I’m a trained scientist — what was I doing there?” she asked a packed room of researchers, patients, survivors and patient advocates at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Monday. “When you have a cancer that has no standard of care, any direction in the darkness is like a beacon.”

The turn to Facebook was Painter’s first step on a path from the bench to the bed to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where as a scientist-turned-patient-turned-advocate, she directs an unusual collaboration between patients and researchers called the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project. It was the MBC Project that brought Painter — now 42 and, as her blog puts it, “still alive!”— to the Hutch campus at the invitation of a group that focuses on using data to drive cancer cures.

With new technology for generating reams of genomic and molecular data, few scientists need convincing of the potential for big data — combined with clinical information from individual patients — to yield big answers for targeted cancer treatments. Even Vice President Joe Biden is on board, calling on cancer researchers to share databases as part of his National Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

What Painter advocates is the need for new partners to drive that research and new tools to collect that data: namely, patients and social media.

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Phone therapy helps older women get their sleep

New study shows significant improvement in menopausal women’s insomnia after receiving simple intervention

May 23, 2016 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Illustration by Jacqueline Morgado / Fred Hutch News Service

Some menopausal women try exercise to ease their symptoms. Others go for acupuncture or pills. Still more try weird web tricks like drinking tea made of boiled bananas to get a few hours of oh-so-elusive sleep.

But a new study out of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington may have found a better way to handle menopause’s traditional double whammy of hot flashes and insomnia: brief behavior-changing phone chats with sleep coaches.

“We’re very excited about these findings,” said Dr. Katherine Guthrie, a public health researcher at Fred Hutch and co-author of the study. “It’s especially exciting because it’s a non-pharmacological and non-hormonal approach. It’s low-cost, non-invasive and there’s a low-time commitment.”

Published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, the study showed that keeping a nightly sleep diary and receiving counseling about smart sleep habits from a sleep coach helped women reduce their insomnia and improve sleep quality through all stages of menopause. The study also showed that this cognitive behavioral approach significantly reduced the degree to which hot flashes interfered with women’s daily functioning.

Led by clinical psychologist and research professor Dr. Susan McCurry of the University of Washington’s School of Nursing, the study involved 106 heathy Seattle-area women between the ages of 40 and 65, all of whom suffered moderate insomnia and experienced at least two hot flashes a day.

The randomized clinical trial found significant improvement in just eight weeks for women who’d changed their sleep habits or “sleep hygiene” per their coach’s advice. Even better, when researchers followed up with these women 24 weeks later, they were still sleeping well.

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The postdoc life

Brains, gusto, grit and humor on the (tenuous) path to a tenured job

May 19, 2016 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson

"I can't imagine doing anything else," said Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson, a postdoc in the Fred Hutch lab of developmental biologist Dr. Cecilia Moens.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Wanted: Qualified candidate for short-term position. Science doctorate required. Average weekly work hours may range from 40 to 60-plus. Must take direction well. Must be capable of working completely independently, sometimes alone in a laboratory at 1 a.m. May be asked to secure own source of salary and research support. Unique opportunity to chip away at problems that plague humanity or answer burning questions about the nature of life itself. Starting salary less than $44,000 annually.

Sound appealing? Nearly 6,000 newly minted Ph.D.s sign up for this position every year.

It’s the American postdoc, and depending on who you talk to, it’s an essential training ground for academic scientists, the unsung hearts and hands behind many of the research discoveries you read about in the newspaper, the people who actually “do” research, or a cheap source of labor to propel the machine of scientific progress.

Some postdocs may categorize their jobs as all of the above, depending on the day.

However you view it, the “postdoc” — the term commonly refers both to the job and the person doing it, perhaps as a reflection of how deeply these postdoctoral scientists-in-training integrate themselves into their careers — is a required step for those who want to join the ranks of tenure-track research faculty, the scientists who lead academic research teams (and who are the postdocs’ bosses and mentors).

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoc Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson about academic research — and her goal to one day lead her own laboratory team as a principal investigator, or PI.

“But that’s probably because I’ve never done anything else,” she quipped.

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

May 19, 2016

Dr. Garnet Anderson

Dr. Garnet Anderson is principal investigator of the Women's Health Initiative Clinical Coordinating Center, which is based in Fred Hutch's Public Health Sciences Division, which she directs.

Photo by Stefanie Felix for Fred Hutch

Fred Hutch receives $50M grant to extend Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Coordinating Center for another five years

The long-running Women’s Health Initiative just received a five-year extension — and nearly $50 million in funding – from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, or NHLBI, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re thrilled to get another five years of funding,” said Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and principal investigator of the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center, housed at Fred Hutch. “The WHI has been a major component of PHS, providing a platform for a lot of additional studies. We’re interested in encouraging a broader range of researchers from across the center to take advantage of this resource.”

Anderson said funding for the WHI’s four regional centers was renewed six months ago, so it was “pretty well assumed” that the Clinical Coordinating Center funding would also be approved. Still, the renewal of the program came as “a big relief.”

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