Another day, another email on the computer screen of a young scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center…. Only this one is different: This one is from the boss. “Congratulations,” it says.
This spring, five “young investigators” working at the Seattle cancer research center — or soon to join it — received these entirely unexpected notes from Fred Hutch president and director Dr. Gary Gilliland. And, shades of the MacArthur Foundation’s famous “Genius” grants, the notes carried a bigger surprise. Each scientist had been awarded a $100,000 grant for “unrestricted” research in their laboratories.
Dr. Alice Berger was perhaps the most surprised of all. She was still hard at work in her cancer research lab at the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she received the email. She had just accepted a junior faculty position in the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch, but her move this summer to Seattle was still months away.
“It makes me feel good about my decision to join the Hutch,” said Berger, by phone from Cambridge. “It shows their support for young investigators, which is something I heard about again and again when I visited there.”
At a joint program with the Broad Institute and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, Berger had been making a name for herself in the study of pulmonary adenocarcinoma, a common form of lung cancer. Her work involves a systematic search for genetic mutations linked to lung cancer and development of analytical techniques to understand the molecular mechanics that cause these flawed genes to produce cancerous cells.
The President’s Young Investigator Awards are made possible through the generosity of Paula Rosput Reynolds and Steve Reynolds, and the family of Richard C. Goldstein. These awards recognize and assist new researchers and junior faculty members. Importantly, the five awards are given to researchers in each of the Hutch’s five scientific divisions.
“These young investigators in many ways personify the future of Fred Hutch,” said Gilliland. “I am grateful to our community of Hutch supporters that made it possible to reward these rising stars.”
Dr. Robert Bradley, who also received the surprise email from Gilliland, is a computational biologist who studies the role of RNA — the chemical cousin of DNA — in human diseases such as leukemia, prostate and breast cancer, and muscular dystrophy. He is particularly focused on the role of a process known as RNA splicing, in which pieces of RNA are cut apart and then stitched together to make a single RNA that encodes a protein. This splicing process allows a single gene to produce several different proteins, depending on how the shortened RNA segments are stitched together. When this splicing process goes awry, cancers can result.
“It’s very motivating to have your work recognized and valued,” Bradley said. “And it is exciting to have an opportunity to move our science forward more rapidly.”
With his unrestricted funds, Bradley said he intends to take his research in a new direction — to find out whether any of the new molecular processes and pathways he is charting might yield targets for new drugs. “Having access to unrestricted funds allows us to move more quickly in a therapeutic direction,” he said.
Bradley opened his Fred Hutch lab less than five years ago, and was recently elevated from assistant to associate faculty member. He holds joint appointments in both the Public Health Sciences and Basic Sciences Divisions.
Young Investigator’s Award recipient and assistant faculty member Dr. Aude Chapuis of the Clinical Research Division is conducting clinical trials of therapies that harness the body’s own immune system to treat a variety of cancers, including Merkel cell carcinoma, acute myeloid leukemia, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Working with Dr. Phil Greenberg, who heads the Fred Hutch Program in Immunology, she and her colleagues have generated some encouraging preliminary results showing that T cells genetically modified to recognize a protein on cancer cells called WT1 can prevent leukemia relapse after a bone marrow transplant and reduce the size of mesothelioma tumors.
“I am grateful and honored that the work we are doing in the lab is perceived as contributing to the advancement of immunotherapy,” she said.
Chapuis is currently developing strategies to speed the process of finding and isolating many new receptors on cancer-killing T cells so that therapies can target several other telltale proteins in tumors at once. Her focus is on a family of tumors that originate in male testis cells. With new “high-throughput” techniques and equipment, her lab hopes to find the right receptors and matching cancer cell surface-proteins faster.
“It used to take four years to develop one T-cell receptor. Now we have the capability to develop 10 in two months,” she said.
Award winner Dr. Emily Hatch joined Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division as an assistant faculty member in January after postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her studies focus on the “nuclear envelope,” the flexible barrier surrounding a cell’s nucleus — the storage compartment for DNA. She is exploring how disruptions to this membrane may play a role in cancer and other diseases. “The nuclear membrane may not be as stable as everybody once thought,” she said. “An unstable membrane can lead to massive DNA damage.”
She plans to use the money to invest in imaging technologies that will allow her to perform high-resolution microscopy of the nuclei of living cells. This will improve her lab’s ability to understand not only the mechanisms involved in nuclear envelopes of cancer cells, but those of a variety of genetic diseases that have been traced to mutations in lamins, tiny fibrous proteins that normally stabilize the nuclear membrane. The surprise award, she said, recognizes the importance of Basic Sciences and the fundamental biological questions examined there. “It makes me feel very welcome and part of the Hutch community,” she said.
Dr. Martin Prlic of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division is an immunologist with a deep understanding of specialized white blood cells that the immune system uses to kill cancer cells or cells that have been infected by viruses. He specializes in the study of primitive natural killer cells, which are genetically hard-wired to kill cells and tissues that pose a threat; and of the more sophisticated CD8 T cells, which have a capacity to remember newly destroyed pathogens or cancerous cells and to reawaken to defend against them should these threats reappear years later. His goal is to apply his findings to improve vaccine development and prevent post-transplant infections.
In his most recent work, Prlic and his team are exploring a recently described group of T cells thought to kill bacteria in mucosal tissues, and which appear to interact with the chemicals secreted by the complex communities of bacteria living in those tissues in ways that can either boost or harm a person’s health. Prlic said he is excited by the possibilities of the unrestricted funding. “Usually you apply for a project and ask for money,” said Prlic. “All of a sudden it’s the other way around. Here’s $100,000, come up with the best way to use it. This is money that I want to use well.”
Paula Reynolds, Fred Hutch Board of Trustee member and former Board Chair, was the driving force behind the establishment of the President’s Young Investigator Awards. “It was clear that there was a need to help young investigators,” she said. “Private philanthropy is the only way younger researchers can get that support. I talked to Nancy Greenwood Vehrs (Deputy Director of Development), she talked to Gary Gilliland, and we had a program.”
The awards to Prlic and Bradley were made possible by Reynolds and her husband, Steve, through the Intermec Foundation, the charitable arm of the technology company on which he served as director until its acquisition by Honeywell in 2013. The awards to Berger, Chapuis and Hatch were funded by the Goldstein family through the Richard C. Goldstein Private Foundation.
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.