Generous gift for early detection

Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grants $5 million for biomarker research
Dr. Peter Nelson poses in a lab
Human Biology Division's Dr. Peter Nelson will serve as scientific coordinator for an innovative "proof-of-principle" biomarker project. Photo by Todd McNaught

A $5 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will accelerate the Hutchinson Center's progress toward early detection of breast and prostate cancer through an innovative "proof-of-principle" project that will set new standards for the field.

Early cancer-detection research strives to identify specific biomarkers — tumor-derived or responsive proteins in the blood — that can indicate the presence of cancer long before symptoms begin, when the opportunity for cure is highest. The term "proof-of-principle" refers to a project that confirms a premise — in this case, by testing the theory that biomarkers can herald early cancer development with a high degree of accuracy in a living organism. The Allen Foundation's grant will fund science at the Center that seeks to demonstrate that biomarkers can be correlated with the presence of cancer in a mouse, yielding a blueprint for future discoveries relevant to early cancer detection in humans.

"The Allen Foundation's landmark gift will enable us to reach toward our vision of detecting cancer at its earliest stages using a simple and highly accurate blood test," said Dr. Lee Hartwell, president and director. "Identifying biomarkers in a mouse model, which is genetically predictable in the laboratory, leverages our ability to find cancer early in humans," Hartwell said.

The resulting knowledge ultimately could shift the emphasis of cancer care away from treatment of advanced disease and toward early detection of cancer in persons known to be susceptible or just starting to develop the disease, Hartwell said.

Paul Allen said that through the grant he seeks to strengthen one of the Northwest's leading scientific assets, laying the groundwork for federal and industry involvement in the Center's early cancer-detection research.

"The scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are not afraid to undertake risky projects to achieve big payoffs, which aligns with our philosophy at the Foundation," Allen said. "Ambitious and high-risk projects like these are necessary, and we hope they will ultimately lead to higher cancer-survival rates."

Groundbreaking research

Allen emphasizes the need for improved cancer-screening tools. "Early cancer detection saves lives; most of us can cite examples of loved ones who might have survived had their disease been discovered in time," he said. "Many forms of cancer are insidious and currently quite difficult to detect before they have progressed. We need more-effective early cancer-detection tests and we need them as soon as possible. This grant to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is intended as a catalyst to make that happen earlier and hopefully save lives."

Susan Coliton, senior director of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, said the research project is in keeping with the Foundation's goals. "As one facet of its mission, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation strives to expand knowledge that improves lives. This groundbreaking biomarker research has the potential to do just that."

Dr. Peter Nelson, a researcher in the Human Biology Division, will serve as the project's scientific coordinator. "This generous gift gives us the tools to demonstrate that specific biomarker-identification strategies can be used to detect breast and prostate cancers prior to clinical symptoms," Nelson said. "All of us, especially physicians, know the prognosis is best for patients who are diagnosed in the earliest stages of cancer. Now we'll be on a fast track to develop blood tests for early diagnosis, which in turn could help us dramatically improve cancer-survival rates."

Nelson's efforts will be joined by those of colleagues Drs. Sam Hanash, Martin McIntosh, Amanda Paulovich, Chris Kemp and Daniel Martin, as well as Sara Zriny, project manager, and Dr. Denny Liggitt from the University of Washington.

The five-year survival rate for breast-cancer patients with early stage disease is 85 percent to 95 percent, but it is only 22 percent in patients whose cancer has spread to distant organs, Nelson said.

Additionally, Nelson said, better cancer-screening tools could lead to benefits including avoidance of invasive procedures, false-positive test results and the ensuing psychological stress and unnecessary treatments. Lower screening-test costs are another potential benefit, he said.

Early support

The Allen Foundation was among the first to support the Center's early cancer-detection research by providing $2 million in 2003 to help launch the Center's Early Detection and Intervention Initiative, stimulating additional grants for the initiative. A $2 million gift from the Allen Foundation in 1996 helped the Center build a new home for its Clinical Research Division.


The Center's leadership role in early cancer-detection research

The Center has been a leader in early cancer-detection research for more than a decade. Major accomplishments to date include:

  • development of a highly successful screening method for esophageal cancer that has boosted survival rates from 5 percent to more than 80 percent;
  • discovery of a promising marker for early detection of ovarian cancer; and
  • development of a sensitive test for detecting the earliest signs of relapse in chronic myeloid leukemia patients.

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