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Revealing a new way that cancer can evade immunotherapy — and, maybe, how to stop it

How a new technology solved a mystery and honors one man’s legacy

Sept. 24, 2018 | by Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Photo of Dr. Gregg Schimmel and Dr. Monica Bristow with a scenic vista of a European village in the background

Pictured here with his wife Dr. Monica Bristow, Merkel cell carcinoma patient Dr. Gregg Schimmel participated in research that has helped researchers solve a mystery about how cancers escape immunotherapy.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Monica Bristow

Dr. Monica Bristow smiles up at a photo on the living-room wall. She remembers when they took that picture: Her husband was just finishing a course of chemotherapy, and his hair was starting to regrow. In a silly mood, the family arrayed themselves around him on the front stoop and piled their hands on his downy-topped pate, the grins on their faces reflecting his.

Life was full of things for her husband to smile at. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Gregg Schimmel’s passion was to help his patients live better lives, but he also plunged himself with enthusiasm into his tennis game and his favorite classic-rock bands, whose albums still dominate the dining-room wall.

Each time his rare skin cancer came back — again, and again, and again, for eight and a half years — his will to stay in the world that brought him so much joy propelled him forward, Bristow says.

Then, there came the time last year, when Schimmel’s Seattle doctors told the couple that they had run through every treatment option they could find for his Merkel cell carcinoma, both standard and experimental.

Bristow had long sensed that this conversation would happen one day. But that didn’t make it easier to hear those words.

At home with family, Schimmel passed away in his sleep on July 21, 2017.

His story, however, was hardly finished.

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Fred Hutch deepens its focus on the microbiome

Microbiome Research Initiative hosts 2-day symposium

Sept. 20, 2018 | By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service

A panel discussion at the Microbiome Research Initiative'a 2018 Symposium

Scientists discuss research at the Microbiome Research Initiative 2018 Symposium at Fred Hutch. Left to right are Drs. David Fredricks of Fred Hutch; Yasmine Belkaid of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Robert Jenq of MD Anderson; David Cook of Seres Therapeutics; Stephen O'Keefe of the University of Pittsburgh; and Johanna Lampe and Neelendu Dey of Fred Hutch.

Photo by Connor O'Shaughnessy / Fred Hutch

Not so long ago, it would seem a stretch to think that the vast communities of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our skin, our mouths and our guts might be important to the prevention and treatment of cancer, but not anymore.

This week Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center hosted a two-day symposium highlighting research on how that microbiome — and gut bugs in particular — may interact with the immune system. Research is revealing that it does so in ways that can enhance or inhibit cancer treatments and that might play a role in triggering cancer or stopping it.

Nearly one year ago, Dr. David Fredricks launched the Fred Hutch Microbiome Research Initiative, which so far has pulled 48 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and staffers into monthly meetings to coordinate research across the Hutch and plan this 2018 Symposium — the first of what are intended to become biennial events.

“The goal is to demonstrate that there is a vibrant, lively community of like-minded scientists in this field, and there is a home here at Fred Hutch for microbiome science,” Fredricks said.

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Squelching ovarian cancer: the not-so-silent killer

The search continues for new biomarkers, better outcomes and, yes, cures for this deadly disease

Sept. 17, 2018 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

drawing of ovarian cancer patient

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Despite its long-standing nickname, ovarian cancer isn’t really a silent killer. There are symptoms; it’s just that they whisper or are commonly mistaken for something else, like aging or irritable bowel syndrome. As a result of this — and the lack of therapies for advanced disease — ovarian cancer continues to kill nearly 15,000 women a year in the U.S., most of whom are diagnosed at a late stage.

There's been recent progress in treatment: Three new targeted drugs called PARP inhibitors have helped many ovarian patients, especially those with inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, which account for about 15 percent of all ovarian cancers. Combinations of old and new drugs have also shown promising results.

But there is much left to do to catch and squelch this killer.

Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are on the case, primarily in three of ovarian cancer’s most problematic realms: early detection and screening; differentiating the patients who won’t respond to standard chemotherapies from those who will; and developing new treatments, like immunotherapies, to beat back advanced disease.

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Washington’s Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment awards $1.5M to 3 Fred Hutch researchers

Scientists will use funds to expand research in graft-vs.-host disease, chemoprevention and cancer immunology

Sept. 14, 2018 | By Jill Christensen / Fred Hutch News Service

Drs. Evan Newell, Geoffrey Hill and Thomas Kensler

Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment recipients Drs. Evan Newell, Geoffrey Hill and Thomas Kensler, all of whom were recruited recently to Fred Hutch.

Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Three researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently were awarded a total of $1.5 million from the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment, a public-private partnership that supports cancer research in Washington. Until recently, the fund was known as the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment (CARE) Fund.

The awardees, all recent recruits to Fred Hutch, each of whom received individual grants of $500,000, are:

  • Dr. Geoffrey Hill, a renowned bone marrow transplantation physician-scientist whose research focuses on better understanding of a transplantation side effect called graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD.
  • Dr. Thomas Kensler, an expert in carcinogenesis and chemoprevention whose laboratory focuses on using chemoprevention to establish safe, economical, and effective means for reducing cancer risks related to unavoidable environmental exposures.
  • Dr. Evan Newell, a leading immunologist whose research focuses on using new technologies for identifying specific, accurate biomarkers of human health and disease, including cancer.

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How chromosomes find a happy medium

Hutch scientists show how chromosomes communicate to balance crossovers during sex-cell formation

Sept. 14, 2018 | By Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Trisomy

An illustration of trisomy, the state of having three copies of the same chromosome (highlighted in purple). Trisomy can occur if cells can't properly sort chromosomes during sex-cell formation.

Image by Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health

Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have worked out the molecular underpinnings of how chromosomes make the right number of crossovers — important links that make it possible for developing sex cells (eggs or sperm in humans) to sort those chromosomes properly. Crossovers are a little like Goldilocks’ porridge — they need to be just right. Too few or too many crossovers, and new cells end up with the wrong number of chromosomes, which can cause miscarriages or developmental disorders.

It’s been known for 100 years that our chromosomes have a way of preventing too many crossovers along their length. What’s been missing all that time has been a working model that identifies the key molecules involved.

In work published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Hutch molecular biologist Dr. Gerry Smith and his team outline just such a model in yeast that explains how chromosomes find their happy medium during sex-cell formation.

“What’s significant is that we’ve developed a molecular model of the proteins involved and how they work together to create crossover interference,” said Smith, the study’s senior author.

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H. pylori test hints at risk factor for stomach cancer

Pilot study suggests specific strain of bacteria may be found more often in East Asian patients with stomach cancer

Sept. 12, 2018 | By Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

H. pylori bacterium

Corkscrew-shaped H. pylori bacteria cause a chronic stomach infection and are one of the top risk factors for stomach cancer.

Image courtesy of the Salama Lab / Fred Hutch

Infection with Helicobacter pylori is one of the top risk factors for stomach cancer — but only a small proportion of individuals who carry the bacterium go on to develop cancer. Identifying who is most at risk for cancer will help doctors shape treatment and screening strategies for patients infected with H. pylori.

Now, a pilot study by scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Zhengzhou University in China, facilitated by Fred Hutch’s China Initiative, hints that the strain of H. pylori may influence cancer risk. The work, published today in PLOS ONE, shows that patients with stomach cancer are much more likely to be infected with H. pylori that possesses a specific variant of a gene called cagA, which suggests that it may raise the risk of stomach cancer in this region.

“Having the cagA gene has been a marker for cancer and ulcers in Western populations, but in East Asian populations, they all have cagA — it’s not particularly relevant. But in this study we’re saying actually, the type of cagA matters [for cancer risk in East Asia],” said Fred Hutch microbiologist Dr. Nina Salama, the study’s senior author.

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