We want to recognize the excellent work and achievements of our staff and faculty and will be regularly highlighting them in this space. Here are some recent notable accomplishments:
Fred Hutch nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Marian Neuhouser was tapped to participate in a prestigious expert panel that advises the federal government on nutrition.
On Feb. 19 the panel submitted a report that will be used by the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to write the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is scheduled to be released by the end of the year.
The recommendations issued by the 14-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which convenes every five years, were based on published scientific evidence regarding whole diets rather than individual, isolated foods.
Data suggest a menu rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein (fish, lean meats, legumes), low-fat dairy and whole grains reduces the risk of major chronic diseases, including some cancers, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Such an eating pattern also helps people achieve a healthy body weight.
For the first time, the expert panel examined the sustainability and ecological impact of healthful dietary patterns.
“While the data are somewhat limited, some evidence suggests that the same dietary patterns that confer health are also planet-friendly,” Neuhouser said. For example, plant-based diets use fewer natural resources and are less likely to contribute to pollution than meat-based diets.
In terms of American eating habits, the panel found most people still consume too much sodium, added sugars and refined grains. “Progress needs to be made in terms of reducing these components of the diet in order to improve the health of the population as a whole,” Neuhouser said.
“We need to make efforts to help people have access to healthy, affordable foods in all population sectors and at the level of the individual family, the community, schools, the workplace and larger society.”
Fred Hutch clinical researcher Dr. Matthias Stephan has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development Award, known as the CAREER Award, from the National Science Foundation to further his immunotherapy research.
Stephan seeks to transform the application and efficacy of immunotherapy by optimizing the methods used to engineer T cells so that they can find and destroy cancerous or infected cells. To do this, Stephan has combined materials and methods from bioengineering with immunology to pioneer the field of immunobioengineering. The NSF confers its CAREER awards upon young investigators working at the forefront of their fields while developing new ways to educate the public about science.
The potential of T-cell therapy to cure cancer while sparing healthy tissue makes it one of the most promising cancer treatment innovations in decades — but the method still needs perfecting. The process of engineering T cells remains time-consuming and complex, and researchers struggle to deliver enough therapeutic cells to damage tumors. Stephan has tackled these problems by utilizing nanoparticles designed to carry the genes required for engineering directly to T cells still circulating inside patients. His strategy could someday be used to turn patients into their own T-cell engineering labs and enable their cancer or infection to be treated with immunotherapy immediately upon diagnosis.
The CAREER Award offers $500,000 over the next five years as Stephan pursues this vision, optimizing his nanoparticle delivery system and investigating how the nanoparticles affect T cells at the molecular level. Stephan also will test how well his nanoparticles can modify T cells inside mice and enable engineered T cells to beat back disease.
The CAREER Award further supports Stephan’s commitment to bringing his knowledge of cutting-edge science and technology to high school students and teachers. He has designed two programs, one for teachers and one for students, which expose students and teachers to the both the laboratory techniques and the potential applications of immunobioengineering.
His program to educate teachers includes experimental kits that allow them to recreate two immunobioengineering experiments — encapsulating drugs into nanoparticles and creating liposomes — in their own high school settings. Students and teachers come away with hours of hands-on experience in Stephan’s own lab, a detailed understanding of the immune system and its potential to be harnessed to fight disease, and a working knowledge of a few of the techniques that immunobioengineers use daily. In particular, the program can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in applying to college and pursuing scientific careers.
Microbiologist Dr. Gerald Smith has been named a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an honor bestowed on American Society for Microbiology members through a selective, peer-review process that assesses candidates for original research that has advanced the field of microbiology. Smith was recognized by the AAM for his ongoing research into how bacteria and yeast repair broken DNA, a fundamental process that is necessary for cells to survive and to give rise to genetic diversity.
Following decades of basic research on the proteins that cells use to patch DNA breaks, Smith is now pursuing an innovative approach to antibiotic discovery that could overcome the pressing problem of antibiotic resistance development. Smith has made crucial insights into the function of the bacterial DNA-repair protein RecBCD, an enzyme unique to bacteria but nearly universal among them, and essential for bacterial pathogens to efficiently infect their hosts and to undergo the rapid evolution that is the hallmark of antibiotic resistance. Smith and his colleagues discovered several compounds that block RecBCD’s activity. These compounds may lead to a new class of broad-spectrum antibiotics by blocking repair of broken DNA, and also prevent a major route to antibiotic resistance by stopping bacterial evolution in its tracks.
Smith also studies the formation of DNA double-strand breaks, a type of DNA damage that organisms from yeast to humans purposely inflict on their chromosomes during reproduction – the breaks and subsequent repair are critical for chromosomes to segregate correctly when sex cells form. Failure of these steps can lead to infertility and birth defects. Errors in DNA break repair can also lead to cancer and other human diseases. Properly regulating these biological events is essential for the health of all organisms, including humans.
Smith has been a faculty member of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division since 1982 and is also an Affiliate Professor of Genome Sciences in the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. He joins other Fred Hutch faculty elected to the AAM Drs. Lee Hartwell, Robert Eisenman, Denise Galloway, Julie Overbaugh, Dan Gottschling and Maxine Linial.