Partnership for success

Emerging research programs, pediatric oncology, solid-tumor research areas are the focus of the Cancer Consortium's annual external review

Four years after the formation of a strategic cancer-research partnership between Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, the tri-institutional, Fred Hutchinson/University of Washington Cancer Consortium has impressed some of the nation's top cancer experts with its world-class scientific programs, research progress and outstanding faculty.

Those are among the conclusions of the Cancer Consortium's External Advisory Board (EAB), which convened May 15 at the Center for its annual meeting. Each year, the 10-member group — which includes national leaders in basic, clinical and public-health research — attends an all-day session of presentations and discussions and is tasked with providing feedback on the Consortium's progress and goals.

This year, the advisory board was asked to reflect and provide counsel on future directions of the pediatric oncology program; progress in solid-tumor research and clinical trials; emerging programs in computational biology, epigenetics and molecular diagnostics; and faculty recruitment. On all counts, the EAB was very pleased with the Consortium's continuing excellent progress, said Dr. Mark Groudine, the Center's deputy director and a member of the Basic Sciences Division. "The committee members were impressed with the basic science, which they viewed as world-class and cutting across many disciplines," he said. "They also commended the Consortium's strong focus on understanding the fundamental biology of cancer and developing new methods for cancer prevention, early detection and therapy." In addition, committee members cited the high caliber of recently recruited faculty members.

Pediatric oncology program

The Consortium was created in 2002 when the Center, UW and Children's submitted a joint application for the NCI Cancer Center Support Grant, also known as the core grant. As a result of the partnership, the Center and the cancer programs at UW and Children's now constitute one of the 39 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers around the country. Before formation of the Cancer Consortium, the Center alone held the NCI designation.

A significant portion of this year's Consortium EAB meeting focused on future directions of the pediatric oncology program. Under its new chief executive officer, Dr. Thomas Hansen, Children's has strengthened its commitment to research with the vision of establishing one of the top five pediatric medical research centers in the country and is prepared to devote significant financial investment toward this goal.

To explore opportunities and challenges for expanding research on childhood cancers in partnership with Children's, Dr. Bruder Stapleton, chair of the UW Department of Pediatrics, and Groudine led a strategic-planning effort during the past year with colleagues at Children's and UW that included input from 10 nationally recognized experts in pediatrics, genomics, drug discovery and other disciplines.

Key recommendations

Among the key recommendations to emerge from the strategic-planning process were: focus scientific activities on areas that would capitalize and build on existing Consortium strengths such as research on blood cancers, genetics and epigenetics, and pharmacology; build a strong translational ("bench-to-bedside") research program; strengthen research in sarcoma, brain cancer and survivorship; and recruit new investigators based on talent rather than specific disease area.

Because growth of the program would require significant financial investment and laboratory space to house new faculty and shared resources, the EAB recommended that expansion efforts take place only with significant financial support from the Hutchinson Center's partner institutions. In addition, the committee advised, the Hutchinson Center should continue to evaluate balancing investment in pediatric research with emerging research opportunities in other cancer-research areas, and explore investing in shared resources that support not only pediatric-cancer research but other cancer-research disciplines as well.

The EAB also provided feedback on the Consortium's growing solid-tumor program, which has broadened the Center's long-standing strength in developing new treatments for blood cancers like leukemia to include translational research on breast, prostate, lung, gastrointestinal and gynecologic cancers.

Dr. Mac Cheever, who joined the faculties of the Clinical Research Division and the University of Washington in February, presented an overview on the solid-tumor program, which he directs. Cheever is a medical oncologist with expertise in development of vaccines for solid-tumor cancers. Among Cheever's key goals are to increase the number of solid-tumor clinical trials offered at the SCCA, particularly early stage, or Phase I trials; increase the numbers of patients enrolled in solid-tumor clinical trials; achieve national leadership in translational research for breast, prostate, gynecologic, colorectal, pediatric and lung cancers; and to recruit an outstanding oncologist to direct the Phase 1 clinical-trials program.

The recruitment of Cheever is an important accomplishment that provides experienced senior leadership in solid-tumor oncology, immunology, vaccine therapy and drug development, said Dr. Lee Hartwell, president and director. "Our external advisers praised our overall goals for the solid-tumor strategy as good ones, which, if successful, should lead to important new treatment options for patients with solid tumors," he said. Committee members particularly singled out the Consortium's unique scientific strengths in imaging, immunology and biomarkers, which, if effectively linked to multi-disciplinary clinical teams, will expand the already distinguished clinical programs in blood cancers and bone-marrow transplantation.

To continue to strengthen the solid-tumor program, the EAB advised the Consortium leaders to strive to provide sufficient protected time for clinical researchers to allow them to devote adequate effort to developing and testing new cancer therapies in clinical trials. In addition, the EAB encouraged the continued development of support services to help minimize the administrative burdens for investigators to conduct clinical trials. The advisers noted in their report that "a strong solid-tumor clinical-trials program would reap many benefits for the Consortium. Clinical trials will attract patients to the participating hospitals and clinics who will utilize other services. Perhaps most importantly, clinical trials provide the platform for translating scientific opportunity into clinical utility."

Additional EAB meeting highlights

Imaging: Dr. Norm Beauchamp, chairman of the UW Department of Radiology, gave an overview of the opportunities for cancer-imaging research, which expanded during the last year. A Biomolecular Imaging Center at UW's South Lake Union facility houses a high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instrument and a micro-positron emission tomography (PET) scanner for research on mouse models of cancer. The Molecular Imaging Café, a weekly informal discussion group for imaging researchers, brings together scientists and clinicians from the Center, UW and the SCCA.

Epigenetics: Physical traits — such as eye color — are determined not just by the information contained in a gene's DNA code but by proteins and chemical groups that latch on to genes, causing them to be turned on or off. The study of inheritance of information that is not encoded in DNA sequence is known as epigenetics. Dr. Steven Henikoff, investigator in the Basic Sciences Division, presented on the Center's epigenetics research. The Hutchinson Center has long been a leader in epigenetics — a topic that is increasingly becoming recognized for its importance to cancer — and is exploring development of a formal program in this area to promote new collaborations. The Center is currently seeking foundation funding to expand cancer epigenetics research activities and is well positioned to be the national leader in this area.

Computational biology: Computational biology involves the use of mathematics and statistics to generate new data based on experiments that incorporate existing data, a process that saves both time and money over "wet lab" investigations. The Human Biology Division has recently hired a new computational biologist, Dr. Lon Cardon, who will join the Center this summer and co-direct the program with Public Health Sciences investigator Dr. Robert Gentleman, who presented an overview of the program to the EAB. The program received a $1.5 million donation last fall from Bob and Pat Herbold to accelerate faculty recruitment.

Molecular diagnostics: The research goals of the developing Molecular Diagnostics Program, presented by program head and PHS investigator Dr. Sam Hanash, are to discover accurate methods for determining an individual's cancer risk; detect cancer at its earliest, most curable stage; classify the type and extent of cancer, once diagnosed; and monitor response to therapy and disease progression. The program has 14 members, several of whom lead large multi-institutional projects for early cancer detection. The program sponsored a retreat last summer to develop a strategic plan for its scientific focus.

Recent accomplishments

  • Consortium researchers received $280.9 million in direct funding in 2005.
  • Consortium faculty have garnered a number of major inter-institutional research grants, including extension grants for the Women's Health Initiative; two grants for evaluating effects of acute radiation exposure; National Cancer Institute funding to examine the link between obesity and cancer; $5 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to develop a system for biomarker discovery in mouse models of cancer; and a continuation of an NCI program-project grant for therapy of blood cancers with monoclonal antibodies.
  • Twenty-two new faculty members have been hired during the past year, including a computational biologist and two breast-imaging experts.
  • A Consortium-wide Institutional Review Board has been established to oversee human-subjects cancer research for the Center and UW to improve the efficiency of review of research protocols.
  • $13.8 million has been invested to support infrastructure needs, including information technology, bioinformatics, proteomics and animal imaging.
  • An expanded Women's Center, housing breast-cancer and gynecologic-cancer care activities, opened at the SCCA in fall of 2005.
  • A number of Consortium faculty members received prestigious awards, including Dr. Bill Grady, Presidential Early Career Award; Dr. Mark Groudine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Christopher Li, Minority Access National Faculty Research; Dr. David Baker, National Academy of Sciences.

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