Of the 21 awards announced last month by the American Society for Microbiology, or ASM, two will go to scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The 2017 awards recognize excellence in the research of microbiology, which encompasses the study of all microbes — including viruses, bacteria, fungi and other microscopic organisms.
Fred Hutch evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik won the Eli Lilly and Company-Elanco Research Award, the society’s oldest and most prestigious prize. Given to a scientist who is under 45 years old, the award recognizes basic research in microbiology or immunology and “originality and independence of thought,” according to the ASM.
Malik studies genetic conflicts that arise over evolution in our own genomes or between the genomes of a host and its pathogens. His work framing how humans or other animals and their viruses interact through a lens of evolution has greatly influenced the overall field of virology, wrote Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Michael Emerman, who wrote one of Malik’s nominations for the award.
“He has taught the field how to think about virology in a new way that relies on using evolution to understand the arms race between hosts and their pathogens,” Emerman wrote in his nomination.
Dr. Jesse Bloom won the ASM’s Merck Irving S. Sigal Memorial Award, which is given to early-career researchers studying the basic biology of infectious diseases. Bloom also studies viruses through an evolutionary lens. His research focuses primarily on the influenza virus, using a combination of computational and experimental techniques to explore the virus’ rapid evolution.
"It's a great honor to win this award and especially to be honored by ASM at the same time as Harmit Malik,” Bloom said. “The Hutch is a world-leading center in the study of virus evolution. That's due to amazing evolutionary biologists like Harmit, along with virologists like Michael Emerman and Julie Overbaugh and computational biologists like Trevor Bedford and Erick Matsen. I feel very fortunate to be part of such an exceptional environment.”
Both awards will be presented at the ASM’s next annual meeting in New Orleans in June 2017.
— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service
A multidisciplinary team at Fred Hutch has received a private grant for the early development of personalized vaccines that teach patients’ immune systems to kill their tumors.
The pilot study team includes scientists across multiple divisions of the Hutch and the University of Washington, and it will be overseen by immunotherapy expert Dr. Stanley Riddell of Fred Hutch.
“Our approach to developing this vaccine relies entirely on bringing together scientists and clinicians with very different expertise and on having an extremely dedicated and talented young scientist, [Fred Hutch’s Dr.] Josh Veatch, to drive the research and coordinate everyone's efforts,” Riddell said.
Other team members include the Hutch’s Dr. Sylvia Lee, a physician and researcher who specializes in immunotherapy for lung cancers and melanomas; Dr. McGarry Houghton, a clinical researcher at the Hutch who studies the immunology of lung cancer; Dr. Martin McIntosh, a Fred Hutch computational biologist; and Fred Hutch affiliate investigator Dr. John Thompson of UW, a physician and researcher specializing in immunotherapies for melanoma and kidney cancer.
The team hopes to launch an early-phase clinical trial of the strategy after two years of laboratory development supported by this award, Riddell said.
Veatch said that by building on existing knowledge in immunotherapy, the team aims to create a treatment strategy that could work against many tumor types.
“We know that T cells can target cancer mutations, but that response usually isn’t enough to contain cancers, even with the addition of immune checkpoint inhibitors,” Veatch said, referring to a class of immunotherapy drugs used to treat certain cancers. “This grant will allow the development of tools to better understand these T-cell targets and to develop a therapy attacking these targets that could help patients with multiple types of cancer.”
Traditional vaccination strategies, such as the childhood shot against whooping cough, use dead pathogens or bits of pathogens to train the immune system to recognize and kill that germ if the body ever encounters it in the future.
In contrast, the team’s goal is to create personalized therapeutic vaccines that teach a patient’s immune system to fight a cancer they already have.
Cancer cells carry unique markers called “neoantigens” that aren’t displayed on normal cells. The team is developing a method to identify a patient’s personal cancer neoantigens and then genetically engineer a subset of immune cells called T cells to produce that neoantigen. The reengineered T cells would then carry the neoantigen throughout the patient’s body like a battle flag to rouse the immune system to recognize and fight that unique cancer.
The new grant will support the development of computerized methods to identify genetic sequences in tumor DNA that code for likely neoantigens and the development of lab tests to detect and characterize T cells that are specific for the neoantigens.
Team member McIntosh is excited about both the project’s scientific potential and its future implications for patient care.
“All cancer therapies, including cancer vaccines, need molecular targets and a mechanism to target them. Progress on the former has greatly outpaced the latter,” McIntosh said. “This project intends to develop a new approach to target cancer antigens. It is innovative, interesting scientifically and has the potential to be rapidly translated to patients if successful.
“Research projects are most often either interesting or important, but this one is both,” he said.
Therapeutic cancer vaccines are not a new idea. However, previous efforts to create a therapeutic cancer vaccine were hampered by scientists’ limited understanding of the differences between cancer cells and normal cells and of the most effective way to vaccinate, Riddell said.
This project harnesses powerful new genetic technologies and computational methods for identifying cancer neoantigens, and it builds on lessons the team has learned from ongoing immunotherapy trials about immune responses to genetically engineered T cells.
The project was funded via a competitive process, including external review coordinated through Fred Hutch’s former Immunotherapy Steering Committee, with philanthropic gifts from the Bezos family, which has been deeply committed to the advancement of immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch. This and future awards made from this gift will be managed through the Hutch’s recently launched Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center.
— Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service