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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.”

“It was unclear for a long time whether NHLBI had enough enthusiasm for this landmark program to keep it going,” she said. “The Hutch was really generous in helping us advocate for our cause on Capitol Hill. We talked to lots of people and that resulted in letters of support from many senators and representatives.”

Initiated by NIH Director Bernadine Healy in 1991 and funded by Congress in 1992, the WHI was created to ensure the presence of women in clinical research. Until the NIH passed policy that required it in 1986, biomedical research was not obligated — and often failed — to include women in studies.

The WHI, which aimed to reduce heart disease, breast, and colorectal cancers, and bone fractures in older women, launched in 1993 and managed to recruit more than 160,000 ethnically and geographically diverse postmenopausal women for its clinical trials and observational studies. In 2002, it issued a landmark finding regarding the significant health risks of combined hormone replacement therapy, which at the time was prescribed to millions of postmenopausal women in the U.S. 

Since then, data from WHI’s large population studies has been used in more than 1,300 scientific papers and 340 separately funded ancillary studies. WHI still follows 87,000 women. And since all of these women are over 65, WHI has linked its database to Medicare, allowing exploration of a much larger range of clinical phenotypes, patterns of care, and health outcomes.

This renewal, its third, will take the WHI’s Clinical Coordinating Center into 2021 with funds totaling $49.7 million. The focus of the next five years will be to expand knowledge about what causes cardiovascular disease in older women (as well as what factors help aging women avoid it); expand the study as a scientific resource for the research community; mentor young investigators and facilitate a new generation of large prevention trials.

Anderson was quick to praise the study’s dedicated participants — the backbone of this long-term national health study.

“It’s incredible in a way,” she said. “We have over 1,100 women who are over 95 years of age in research. I doubt there’s anybody else in the country who comes close to that. And the great thing is we have information on them when they were in their 70s. [The WHI] is increasingly becoming a study about aging and, particularly, healthy aging. We’re getting to study a part of the life span that’s often been ignored.”

The quality of this cohort resource is also a testament to the dedicated efforts of highly skilled and dedicated staff here at Fred Hutch and the nine other sites that collect and manage these data and the repository, she said.

The five-year extension will also allow two current randomized trials to keep going.

The Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, dubbed COSMOS, is exploring two questions. Does cocoa extract reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in older adults, and does taking multivitamins help reduce the risk of cancer? The second study, called the Women’s Health Initiative Strong and Healthy Study, or WHISH, will determine if postmenopausal women who increase their physical activity — via walking and strength, balance, and flexibility activities — can lower their risk of heart disease and increase their ability to live independently.

“COSMOS is moving forward well. We’ve randomized our first participants — about 250 so far — but our goal is have about 8,000 WHI women in that study,” Anderson said. “WHISH is further along. They’ve randomized 50,000 women and are now interviewing these women. They all have pedometers and materials that encourage them to get out and exercise, and there’s a phone system that will give them reminder calls and some coaching. These women are increasing their physical activity. We’ve been astounded how willing they are to play a part in this.”

In addition to its clinical trials, the WHI maintains a biological specimen repository, which includes blood and DNA from more than 160,000 women and approximately 2,000 tumor samples from seven types of cancer.

Anderson and others continue to build on that resource.

“We’ve gone back as far as 2002 to the women’s providers, asking if they had any tissue they could share,” she said. “We’re pushing forward with a goal of getting 6,000 samples and we have several studies funded to use this tissue. [Dr.] Riki Peters is using some of our colorectal cancer specimens for a GECCO [Genetic and Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer Consortium] study and I have a collaborator at Columbia [University] who is using the ovarian cancer specimens in conjunction with the WHI blood samples to look for early detection markers.”

Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Effie Wang Petersdorf
Dr. Effie Wang Petersdorf, a clinical researcher at Fred Hutch, studies how genetic factors influence transplant success. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Effie Petersdorf honored for career achievements in transplantation immunogenetics

On May 11, Dr. Effie Wang Petersdorf was honored as the 2016 Ceppellini Lecturer at the 30th European Immunogenetics and Histocompatibility Conference. The European Federation for Immunogenetics bestowed the award on Petersdorf in honor of her contributions to the understanding of human immunogenetics in blood stem cell transplantation.

“It is a great honor and privilege to be named a Ceppellini Lecturer,” said Petersdorf, a clinical researcher at Fred Hutch and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington who studies how genetic factors influence transplant success. “The ceremony itself had special personal meaning, as it took place at the birthplace of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, almost 34 years to the date that I took the Hippocratic oath.”

Petersdorf is among 28 honorees over the award’s history, and the first from Fred Hutch or UW. The award is bestowed annually by the society on a scientist who has made significant contributions to the immunogenetics field. It is named after Italian geneticist Ruggero Ceppellini, whose research helped to decipher the genetics of HLA proteins. These molecules play a central role in the immune response, and HLA type, sometimes called tissue type, is the key factor in matching transplant patients with donated tissue.

As a research fellow, Petersdorf developed methods to compare HLA genes in donors and transplant patients. Her research since then has shown how important precise, complete HLA matching is in transplant safety and has contributed an extensive base of knowledge about the role of HLA matches and mismatches in transplant outcomes.

In her Ceppellini Lecture, Petersdorf discussed her most recent work on HLA expression in unrelated-donor transplantation, particularly in determining permissible tissue-type mismatches when a complete match is impossible. With a permissible tissue-type mismatch, a patient’s risk of death and graft-vs.-host disease (a potentially dangerous transplant complication) are much lower than with other types of mismatches.

Research published by Petersdorf and colleagues last fall discovered a way to identify permissible mismatches in a particular tissue-type marker that has long been known to contribute to graft-vs.-host disease but is almost impossible to match. Genetic testing based on her team’s findings has now been implemented by the Fred Hutch Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“Now we are able to offer a lifesaving transplant using an HLA-mismatched donor where we believe it would not increase the risk,” Petersdorf said.

Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Jamie and Karen Moyer present Champions for Children Award to Dr. Gary Gilliland
Jamie and Karen Moyer present the Champions for Children Award to Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland at the ninth annual Champions for Children Luncheon held Wednesday in Seattle. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutch President Gary Gilliland receives inaugural Champions for Children Award

On Wednesday, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland was honored with the inaugural Champions for Children Award at The Moyer Foundation’s ninth annual Champions for Children Luncheon. The event, held at the Washington State Convention Center, was emceed by former Seattle Seahawks player and current KIRO-TV news anchor Steve Raible.

Gilliland received the award from Moyer Foundation founders Jamie and Karen Moyer because of his dedication and many accomplishments in the cancer research field.

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Jaimie Moyer thanked Gilliland for all of his efforts to fight cancer. Karen Moyer added that The Moyer Foundation has raised more than $2 million for Fred Hutch over the years. Gilliland thanked the couple and their foundation for their support and said, “Together we can further the science at Fred Hutch.”

An example of Moyer Foundation support of Fred Hutch is the successful collaboration between Drs. Harlan Robins and Jason Bielas, both researchers in the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutch. The pair devised a method that counts the number of immune cells in ovarian tumors to assess a patient’s prognosis. Robins and Bielas found that patients who survived more than five years had, on average, three times as many immune cells in their tumors as patients with a survival rate of fewer than two years. The technique is being tested in other solid tumors as well.

The Moyers have supported early cancer detection research at Fred Hutch through The Gregory Fund, which was established through the collaborative efforts of the Hutch and The Moyer Foundation. The purpose of the fund is to generate money and support research dedicated to developing new ways to diagnose cancer at its earliest — most treatable — stage.

For example, over the past decade, contributions to the Gregory Fund have enabled researchers at Fred Hutch and its partner institutions to collaborate to establish ColoCare, a shared biorepository that links colorectal cancer patients’ lifestyle information with their medical history and data about their tumors. The goals of the study are to identify factors that determine both short- and long-term survival.

The foundation now hosts two camps throughout the year. Camp Erin, created in 2002, has grown into the largest free bereavement program for children and teens in the United States. Camp Mariposa, created in 2007, is a free mentoring and addiction-prevention program for children affected by a family member’s substance abuse.

Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Biswajit "Bish" Paul
Biswajit "Bish" Paul is a doctoral student in the lab of Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Grad student Bish Paul from Kiem Lab among inaugural class of Husky 100

Fred Hutch graduate student Biswajit "Bish" Paul has been named among the inaugural class of the Husky 100. The Husky 100 award honors top University of Washington students who best exemplify the Husky experience. UW President Ana Mari Cauce honored the recipients at an award ceremony on May 16.

The Husky 100 honorees are comprised of both graduate students and undergraduates from across the UW Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell campuses that best represent the university. This year, Husky100 received more than 700 nominations and well over 300 endorsements from faculty, staff, students and others. A holistic viewpoint was taken during the highly competitive selection process, looking at academic achievement, standing in the community, extracurricular work and leadership.

Paul is a doctoral student in the joint Fred Hutch/UW Molecular and Cellular Biology program and is completing his doctoral work in the lab of Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch. Paul is evaluating the enzyme megaTAL nuclease, a genetic engineering tool that prevents infection of human cells by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Last year Paul was also recognized with the scholar-citizen award as a finalist for the UW Graduate Medal. He is the first graduate student from Fred Hutch to have won these two UW honors.

Additionally, Paul was a fellow in the national AAAS Emerging Leaders in Science and Society in 2015. He is currently a RISE Learning Institute Teaching Fellow at Bellevue College. Since 2012 he has shared his passion for science with the general public as a Science Communication Fellow at the Pacific Science Center.

Fred Hutch News Service

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