When Dr. Paul Neiman, one of the founders of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Basic Sciences Division, ran into the University of Washington’s Dr. Charles Laird over three decades ago, Neiman reportedly asked him, “Where did you find this guy Steve Henikoff? And can you send us more?”
Laird, Dr. Steven Henikoff’s postdoctoral research adviser, recounted that story Monday at a symposium hosted at Fred Hutch in honor of Henikoff’s 35th year running his basic sciences research lab. Henikoff, an expert in the field of epigenetics (although, as he described Monday, the definition of that term has been up for debate for years), joined the Hutch as a faculty member in 1981 after his stint in Laird’s UW lab. Fred Hutch was just six years old at the time.
In the 35 years since, Henikoff has made seminal discoveries about gene silencing and the structure of chromatin, chromosomes’ organizational system in the cell, said Fred Hutch Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Mark Groudine while introducing the symposium, which coincided with Henikoff’s 70th birthday. Groudine, director emeritus of the Basic Sciences Division, outlined some of Henikoff’s “all-time greatest hits” of how genes are organized and turned on and off inside our cells, as well as the biologist’s inventor spirit.
“He and his lab members develop new techniques when existing ones are not up to the task at hand,” Groudine said. Henikoff’s friends and colleagues also described his tireless work ethic: “We’ll hold another symposium in Steve’s honor 70 years from now because Steve will still be working in the lab at that time,” Groudine quipped.
After taking the microphone to launch the symposium’s scientific talks, Henikoff’s lecture was followed by presentations from current and former lab members, many of whom had traveled back to Seattle for the event.
Henikoff had a difficult time pinpointing his career’s scientific theme, he said, since he’d worked on so many projects over the years. But he spent some time describing debates of recent years over the meanings of such trendy but scientifically ambiguous terms as “epigenetics.” The word only came into common use in the last few decades and is generally used to refer to changes to chromatin (but not the associated DNA) that are inherited from mother to child.
“People get excited about epigenetics in large part because of the idea that it can translate information across generations,” Henikoff said.
The problem, Henikoff said, is that it’s yet to be proved that changes to chromatin’s core components — proteins known as histones, which can be chemically modified in different ways — are heritable in a meaningful way, conferring attributes to an offspring that aren’t scripted in his or her DNA.
Henikoff’s work on this still-somewhat mysterious aspect of all of our cells has drawn many scientists-in-training to study under his mentorship in the past decades. Many of those trainees have since gone on to establish impressive track records in their own right, Groudine pointed out. Several “Henikoff Lab alums” returned to the Hutch this week for the symposium and lab reunion, some from as far away as the Netherlands and Paris.
One of Henikoff’s trainees came to the talks from just down the hall, though. Fred Hutch evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik, who helped organize the symposium, kick-started his career in Henikoff’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow and was then hired in the Basic Sciences Division as a faculty member. Malik was trying to decide between job offers at the Hutch and Harvard, he said, when a Harvard researcher asked him, “Do you actually want to be in the same environment as your postdoctoral adviser?”
“And I thought, yes!” Malik said. “That’s what cemented it for me.”
— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service, Henikoff Lab alum
Diane Mapes, a staff writer and editor with Fred Hutch News Service, earned a Global Lung Cancer Coalition Digital Media Award for her article, "The lung cancer blame game."
The post, published May 7, 2015, explored the stigma associated with that form of cancer and revealed how lack of support and sympathy for many patients dampens medical follow-through and suppresses research funding. The piece shared the personal stories of two people diagnosed with lung cancer and reported the insights of three researchers speaking about the impacts of shame, discrimination and addiction.
“Any time a writer is able to convey what the stigma of being diagnosed with lung cancer means to patients it helps change perceptions,” said Carolyn Aldigé, president and founder of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, a national nonprofit and a member of the Global Lung Cancer Coalition, or GLCC.
“This disease is not always a smoker’s disease. And even if it is self-inflicted that doesn’t mean that a person is subject to a death sentence,” Aldigé said. “This award recognizes excellent journalism that’s easily accessible to the public. It’s really all about changing perceptions for this disease.”
The GLCC promotes worldwide understanding of the burden of lung cancer and the right of patients to effective early detection, better treatment and supportive care, with a commitment to improving disease outcomes for all.
GLCC journalism awards are given annually to reporters in broadcast, print and digital media. Past winners are from, among other nations, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Argentina, Romania and Germany. GLCC representatives living in each of the organization’s 23 member countries can submit a nominee. In the U.S., a review committee comprised of four GLCC-affiliated groups —the Prevent Cancer Foundation, CancerCare, Free to Breathe and the Lung Cancer Alliance — judged numerous articles published on lung cancer.
On Aug. 19, Aldigé presented Mapes with a glass trophy inside the Visitor Center on the Fred Hutch campus.
“For me, it’s about being a conduit and telling the stories that need to be told,” Mapes said. “I started talking to some lung cancer patients on Twitter and realized many of them were being treated very shabbily. Cancer is bad enough on its own; you don’t need others blaming or shaming you on top of that. And lung cancer research is ridiculously underfunded. The fact that one of my patient sources, Sherry Stoll, is now dead brings home just how critical it is to change the false perceptions and further the research. I hope this story will help do that.”
— Bill Briggs / Fred Hutch News Service
He’s one of the unsung heroes of the Hutch, a dedicated, knowledgeable and patient problem-solver whose work is every bit as crucial to quashing cancer as that of the scientists he works with every day. In fact, he used to be one of them.
Dr. Pat Heath, an information technology administrator for the Basic Sciences and Human Biology divisions, is the 2016 T. Evans Wyckoff Esprit de Corps Award winner.
Heath was honored Aug. 18 during the Fred Hutch and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance annual summer barbecue. He is the 23rd recipient of the Wyckoff Award, named for the longtime Fred Hutch supporter and founding member of the center’s board of trustees known for his exemplary service, teamwork and follow-through.
After reading excerpts from three pages of praise for Heath’s consistently superior work, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland quipped, “This guy can’t even exist, he sounds so good” before handing the microphone over to Dr. Sue Biggins, who spoke on behalf of the two divisions.
Biggins, associate director of the Basic Sciences Division, shared additional tributes to the longtime employee’s dedication, helpfulness, extreme patience and technological prowess. Heath has been with Fred Hutch since 1995.
“I can’t really do justice to everything Pat has done for us,” she said. “We can’t thank you enough and don’t know what we’d do without you.”
Heath seemed momentarily stunned by all the kudos.
“It’s a little hard to talk after that; it’s out of my comfort zone,” Heath said. “It’s hard to describe what this means to me. I’m being rewarded for something I do and just like to do. It’s overwhelming.”
Heath went on to tell the audience how flabbergasted he was when Fred Hutch Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Mark Groudine called him into his office and told him he was this year’s recipient.
“I assumed there was something wrong with his computer, but then he closed the door and I thought, ’Uh oh, what have I done?’” Heath said. “And then he told me I’d won. It was obviously a great feeling and very special to hear the news from him. I’ve known him all of the 21 years I’ve been here.”
Heath worked as a postdoc in Dr. Barry Stoddard's lab for two years before deciding to join IT, providing desktop support for Mac users in the two divisions. Many of the investigators who nominated him appreciated his ability to straddle —and understand — both worlds.
“He has been critical to the success of our work for years,” wrote Dr. Julie Overbaugh of the Human Biology Division in her nomination letter. “Many people here do outstanding work but what separates Pat from this larger group is the fact that he seems to always be there to help, no matter what is needed.”
A nomination letter by computational biologist Dr. Robert Bradley mentioned Heath’s enthusiasm and versatility, noting that he was equally happy dissecting a complex network problem or fixing a malfunctioning laptop.
“Pat exemplifies the traits that set Fred Hutch apart from other research institutions,” he wrote. “He is expert, dedicated, generous and hardworking. We couldn’t maintain our level of productivity without his contributions, [which have] played an important and tangible role in my lab’s success.”
— Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service
A unique drive to fund cancer research via Fred Hutch vanity license plates has amassed about 2,300 signatures toward the legal threshold of 3,500 names needed to send the petition to Washington state lawmakers for consideration.
By submitting your name, you acknowledge your support of the license plate program and that you would think about purchasing a set of plates for one or more of your vehicles. (Please note: signing the petition is not an obligation to buy a set of plates.)
Money raised by plate purchases will go directly toward cancer research at the Hutch, including ongoing trials involving immunotherapy, a promising new method to empower patients’ own immune systems to naturally fight cancer. For each plate sold, $28 will help our scientists close in on their goal to end cancer.
“To show that solidarity, that you’re supportive, I think would be special,” Justin Marquart, deputy director of Development at Fred Hutch, told MyNorthwest.com He hatched the idea for the plates while sitting in traffic.
Once 3,500 signatures are gathered, the intent is to have the Hutch’s application considered in the January 2017 legislative session and to have license plates available for purchase next summer.
— Fred Hutch News Service