Good News: Drs. Grzelak, Anderson get Komen awards; Infectious Disease Sciences earns training grant; Drs. Bloom, Matsen named HHMI-Simons Faculty Scholars

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Dr. Candice Grzelak
Dr. Candice Grzelak Fred Hutch file photo

Two Fred Hutch breast cancer researchers receive Susan G. Komen awards

Two breast cancer researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center this week received grant awards from Susan G. Komen. This international nonprofit organization aims to reduce U.S. breast cancer deaths by 50 percent over the next decade by supporting breast cancer research and advocacy.

Dr. Candice Grzelak, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Sciences Division, received $180,000 for research into breast cancer metastasis, or spread. Specifically, she will delve into understanding why breast cancer cells that spread to the liver stay dormant, or quiet, for long periods of time; and what triggers them to awaken and grow once again. Understanding this process will allow the design of new therapeutic approaches for metastatic breast cancer.

“Around 20 percent of metastatic breast cancer patients relapse years to decades following diagnosis and treatment. Developing such a therapy is imperative to eliminate the chance of metastatic relapse,” said Grzelak, who works in the Laboratory for the Study of Metastatic Microenvironments at Fred Hutch under the mentorship of Dr. Cyrus Ghajar, the lab’s director. 

The liver is a common site of breast cancer metastasis; 60 percent of stage 4 breast cancer patients have cancerous lesions in this organ. The survival rate for patients who develop overt liver metastases is very poor: less than six months without treatment and five to 31 months with treatment.

“At the moment, there is no cure for metastasis arising from breast cancer in the liver or other common organ sites, such as lymph nodes, bone marrow, lungs and brain,” Grzelak said. “Strikingly, given that more than 90 percent of patients with cancer die as a result of metastasis, it is surprising that researchers are yet to develop targeted therapies that can successfully treat metastasis.”

Dr. Benjamin Anderson
Dr. Benjamin Anderson Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Benjamin Anderson, a Komen Scholar and member of the Fred Hutch Public Health Sciences Division, received a $200,000 Komen grant to assess breast health care needs in low- and middle-income countries. A leader in international breast health care and cancer control, Anderson is chair and director of the Fred Hutch-based Breast Health Global Initiative.

He also co-directs the Fred Hutch-based Breast Cancer Initiative 2.5, a global campaign to reduce disparities in breast cancer outcomes for 2.5 million women by 2025.

Anderson’s Komen grant will allow him to help identify unmet needs and provide partner countries and organizations with the information and tools needed to implement resource-appropriate interventions and to improve breast cancer outcomes.

“Between 2002 and 2014, BHGI developed resource-stratified guidelines as a framework for early detection, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in low- and middle-income countries. This continued Komen funding is helping us move forward into ‘resource-stratified implementation,’ where countries can use a phased, stepwise approach to build functional systems with the potential to become sustainable over time,” said Anderson, who is also a professor of surgery and global health at the University of Washington who sees patients at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s patient-care partner.

Since 1982, Komen has invested more than $920 million in national and international breast cancer research, including $11.4 million to researchers in Washington state. To date, the Hutch has received more than $2.75 million from the organization.

In addition to research, Komen and its nationwide network of affiliates have invested more than $2 billion in community programs that serve women and men with breast cancer.

—  Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Michael Boeckh
Dr. Michael Boeckh Fred Hutch file photo

Infectious Disease Sciences awarded prestigious training grant

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded a five-year, $1.6 million grant to Fred Hutch’s Infectious Disease Sciences Program to provide physicians and laboratory scientists with postdoctoral training in studying and treating infections in transplant patients and others with weakened immune systems. According to NIAID, these prestigious training grants are awarded to institutions that provide “an outstanding research and academic environment” and have “a critical mass of senior scientists” in the research area.

Infectious Disease Sciences was founded in the 1980s by the late Dr. Joel Meyers to coordinate infectious disease research in transplant patients. Today it is housed in Fred Hutch’s expanded Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, or VIDD.

The grant “recognizes VIDD as a leader in the field of infections in the immunocompromised host and Seattle as a hot spot for training,” said Dr. Michael Boeckh, head of Infectious Disease Sciences and principal investigator of the newly established Training Program in Infectious Diseases. “This is given to institutions or divisions that have a track record for training people as leaders in academic science or industry.”

The new program will accept two trainees a year and support each for up to two years. Trainees can choose from among four tracks — epidemiology, pathogen dynamics and clinical trials; immunology/immunogenetics; microbiome and pathogenesis; and infection prevention and hospital epidemiology. The program also will accept 26 senior and junior faculty mentors.

The training grant is a first for VIDD and the first in the U.S. to train physicians together with laboratory and statistical scientists in this field. “We feel that the cross-fertilization that comes from doing research side by side is a very important characteristic of the program,” Boeckh said.

Infectious Disease Sciences’ support for young physicians and scientists includes the Joel Meyers Endowment Scholarship, which since 1996 has helped those Boeckh calls “the most promising and accomplished ” bridge the gap between completion of their postdoctoral training and securing their first major grant. Many have gone on to become leaders in the now-established field of infections in people with compromised immune systems.

— By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Jesse Bloom
Dr. Jesse Bloom Fred Hutch file photo

Drs. Jesse Bloom and Erick Matsen named HHMI-Simons Faculty Scholars

Fred Hutch’s Drs. Jesse Bloom and Frederick (Erick) Matsen were named Faculty Scholars Thursday by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, and the Simons Foundation. The honor comes with five years of unrestricted philanthropic support for the two scientists, both of whom focus on developing methods for understanding evolution, especially the evolution of pathogens and immune resistance in their hosts.

Faculty Scholars are “early-career scientists who have great potential to make unique contributions to their field,” the sponsoring organizations said in a statement. Bloom and Matsen were among 84 Faculty Scholars from 43 institutions chosen this year out of more than 1,400 applicants. Their selections were based on their work to date and their future research plans. The individual awards for all recipients range from $600,000 to $1.8 million.

The two scientists said they are grateful for the open-ended support provided by their awards, which free them to undertake scientific projects about which they are most passionate.

“I can use [this award] to pursue what I think are the most interesting directions for the lab. I’m really excited that it will give us the flexibility to pursue new ideas that are really promising,” said Bloom, an associate member of the Basic Sciences Division with a joint appointment in the Public Health Sciences Division. “It means I can spend a little less time writing grants and a little more time doing science.” 

Dr. Erick Matsen
Dr. Erick Matsen Fred Hutch file photo

Matsen gave his Hutch team members credit for the honor.

“I’m truly grateful to have been able to recruit some very sharp and dedicated people into my group, and the award is actually recognizing their contributions,” said Matsen, an associate member of the Public Health Sciences Division.

The Faculty Scholars program is a collaboration between the HHMI, the Simons Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The organizations created the program in response to the increasingly difficult environment for early-career investigators in the U.S.

The honor, Bloom said, arrives at “one of the more challenging times” in a scientist’s career ― when institutional, start-up funding for new faculty members runs out and researchers must find sufficient outside grant support to keep their work humming. The financial burden can be a struggle for young scientists with short track records and with growing labs to support.

“This program will provide these scientists with much-needed, flexible resources so they can follow their best research ideas,” said HHMI Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer David Clapham in a statement.

Heads of the scientific divisions at Fred Hutch where Bloom and Matsen work offered the two scientists congratulations on their new honors.

“These awards are a tribute to the high quality of computational research at Fred Hutch, reflecting not just the excellence of Jesse and Erick but also the vision of the center, and particularly [Public Health Sciences faculty member and biostatistician] Dr. Ross Prentice, in starting the Herbold Computational Biology Program 10 years ago,” said Basic Sciences Division Director Dr. Jonathan Cooper by email.

“Both Jesse and Erick are interested in mining DNA sequence information to understand evolution, and Jesse in particular combines computation with experiments done at the bench. He's testing how viruses can adapt to avoid being attacked by the immune system without compromising their ability to reproduce. There are fascinating implications for protein structure and stability, as well as how the immune system recognizes invaders,” Cooper said. “This is basic research at its best.”

“I would like to congratulate both Erick Matsen and Jesse Bloom, on behalf of the entire PHS faculty, on this prestigious award,” Public Health Sciences Division Director Dr. Garnet Anderson said by email.

“It is a particular pleasure for me to acknowledge Erick as the first PHS-based investigator to receive an HHMI honor. He couldn’t be more deserving ― he is a productive scholar, a highly valued collaborator, a generous teacher, and a nice guy. He brings his mathematical prowess to statistical models for phylogenetic trees and applies them to intriguing and highly relevant questions of biology, particularly the evolutionary biology of viruses and bacteria. This award acknowledges both his many contributions to date and the potential we and others see in him,” Anderson said.

In addition to supporting the principal scientific projects in his lab, Matsen said the award will allow him to pursue initiatives “that I think are good for science, rather than just good for our science.”

He is particularly interested in finding better ways to promote discussion and collaboration among scientists, especially across the disciplines of biology and math, Matsen said. The two initiatives in this area that he’s eager to advance as a Faculty Scholar are an online phylogenetics seminar and a discussion site for researchers interested in analyzing the genetics of immune response.

“Sometimes there are things that are important for a scientific field that isn’t glamorous science,” Matsen said.

The two researchers ― who often work together to tackle problems or share insights that might advance each other’s work ― said they are especially pleased to both be named Faculty Scholars at the same time.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be getting this award alongside Jesse,” Matsen said. “Jesse is someone I greatly respect and enjoy talking to immensely.”

The two had been discussing whether to apply for an NIH grant to pursue a joint research project.

“But now we can just do the research rather than spend our time writing the grant,” Bloom said with a grin.

— By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

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