Good News: Dr. Nancy Davidson, former VP Joe Biden and others share cancer insights

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
From left: Penn President Amy Gutmann, former Vice President Joe Biden, pancreatic cancer patient Kim Vernick, Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, Dr. Nancy Davidson of Fred Hutch and Carl June of Penn. Photo by Denise Henhoeffer

Dr. Nancy Davidson, former VP Joe Biden and other cancer leaders share insights about disease that touches so many

On Tuesday, Dr. Nancy Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, participated in a panel discussion about cancer with former Vice President Joe Biden, among others, at the University of Pennsylvania. Biden will soon lead the university’s Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

Biden’s son Beau, a Penn alumnus, lost his life to cancer in 2015. Last year, Biden kicked off the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which included a Moonshot “listening tour” at Fred Hutch, in an effort aimed at accelerating progress in cancer research and treatment.

Penn President Amy Gutmann hosted the David and Lyn Siffen University Forum, entitled "A Formidable Foe: Cancer in the 21st Century, which drew more than 1,000 members of the Penn community.

Other panelists were Dr. Carl June, director of the Translational Research Program at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society; and Kim Vernick, a Penn Medicine patient and pancreatic cancer survivor.

"It was a thrill for me to return to Penn, where I served as a medical intern, to participate in this unique forum showcasing the successes and challenges in the field of cancer," said Davidson, who is also president of the American Association for Cancer Research. "I am grateful to President Gutmann for her willingness to convene a diverse group of panelists to shine a light on the complexities of cancer."

According to panel host Gutmann, the ACS estimates that 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and 40 percent can expect to be diagnosed within their lifetime. “The prognosis today, compared to any other time in human history, is good. But for this team, delivering a good prognosis is not enough.”

At the forum Biden asked the audience members who had been personally touched by cancer to raise their hands, prompting “a sea of arms” to raise up. “You all know full well if someone you love is diagnosed, you try to learn as much as you can as quick as you can about the prognosis and about the particular cancer you’re dealing with,” he said.

Video courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

He added that the need for collaboration — among research universities, medical centers, the private sector and government — was a driving force in building the Moonshot.

Panelist June, of Penn, talked about the promise of immunotherapy, which uses the patient’s own immune system — aided by a bit of genetic reprogramming — to target cancer cells, while panelist Brawley, of ACS, emphasized the need for cancer prevention.

“If we applied everything that we currently know, we could prevent at least 25 percent of all cancer deaths that are occurring now,” he said, suggesting that close to 150,000 of the nearly 600,000 deaths from cancer last year could have been prevented.

It’s a sentiment shared by Fred Hutch clinical oncologist Davidson. “I’m a treater by training, [but] we’re not going to treat ourselves out of the cancer problem,” she said. “Treatment alone is not going to be the best possible solution. I really hope we’re able to take our drive and motivation and scientific curiosity and bring it back into the prevention space.”

— Adapted from a Penn article by Katherine Unger Baillie and Michele Berger

Dr. Aude Chapuis
Dr. Aude Chapuis is an expert in adoptive T-cell transfer, a new class of treatments that use immune T cells to fight cancer. Her new study helps reveal which T cells pack the greatest anti-cancer punch. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Novel ‘barcode’ tracking of T cells in immunotherapy patients identifies likely cancer killers

A new discovery by researchers at Fred Hutch makes an important step in identifying which specific T cells within the diverse army of a person’s immune system are best suited to fight cancer.

The findings were published Feb. 24 in Science Immunology.

“We found that the cells in each patient’s immune system that will ultimately have a clinical effect are incredibly rare,” said Dr. Aude Chapuis, lead author of the paper and a member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch. “Knowing what we’ve found, we can now refine the selection of the cells that we will ultimately use for adoptive T-cell transfer, so that the cells persist and keep the tumors at bay longer in our patients.”

Chapuis is an expert in adoptive T-cell transfer, a new class of treatments that use immune T cells to fight cancer. It works by obtaining T cells from the patient’s own blood, priming them to seek and destroy cancerous cells, multiplying them in the lab and then returning them to the patient. In some treatment settings, the cancer-targeting T cells are instead obtained from a healthy donor’s blood.

But since each infusion contains thousands of varieties of T cells, each with varying cancer-killing capabilities, it’s been unclear which ones offer the most effective anti-cancer punch. Making it more complicated, the cells’ anti-cancer properties change as they grow in the lab. The offspring, or “clones,” they create differ from the originals.

It’s like a “black box,” Chapuis said, in that scientists have rarely been able to identify the composition of cells that are leading the attack on cancer.

A newly developed method of tracking cells lets light into that black box.

“High-throughput T-cell receptor sequencing allows us to distinguish the cells and figure out where they came from, which ones grow in culture and which ones persist after being transferred to the patient,” said Chapuis, who is also an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.

“We can finally track in detail what’s going on when doing adoptive T-cell transfers,” she said.

The method distinguishes T cells from one another according to the nature of their receptor, which is their weapon against cancer. Adaptive Biotechnologies, a spinout of Fred Hutch, developed high-throughput receptor sequencing for immune cells. The technology gives each T-cell receptor a “bar code,” allowing the researchers to track all of the diverse members of an individual patient’s T-cell army.

Following the bar codes of the T-cell receptors, Fred Hutch scientists tracked thousands of immune cells after they have been transferred into patients. They then examined how the cells in the mix related to responses to adoptive T-cell therapy treatment in 10 patients with metastatic melanoma.

The researchers found that in the two patients who went into complete remission after T-cell infusion, the specific T cells that ended up dominating the patients’ cancer-fighting army after infusion were extremely rare in their bodies originally.

The method also allowed the researchers to directly observe in humans that the T cells likely having the most powerful effect tended to be younger, suggesting that they had better capabilities to proliferate and survive — characteristics essential for long-term tumor control.

Chapuis and her collaborators are now looking at how to select out the powerful but rare immune cells and increase their population before being infused into patients. They’re testing the approach in two current clinical trials in lung cancer patients ( identifier NCT02408016) and acute myeloid leukemia patients (NCT02770820).

The Cancer Research Institute and Stand Up To Cancer program funded the research. 

— By Molly McElroy / Fred Hutch News Service

Qing Feng
Qing Feng, a graduate student in the joint University of Washington/Fred Hutch Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program, is among 13 recipients of the 2017 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award. Fred Hutch file

Fred Hutch/UW graduate student Qing Feng among this year’s 13 Weintraub award winners

Qing Feng, a graduate student in the joint University of Washington/Fred Hutch Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program, is one of 13 recipients of the 2017 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award. Fred Hutch announced this year’s award winners Wednesday.

The award, which is now in its 18th year, was the first to recognize graduate students in biology, those promising young researchers at the very beginning of their careers. The 13 recipients were chosen by a selection committee of Fred Hutch faculty members and students for the quality, originality, and significance of their work, and for representation of a diverse range of research topics.

Feng is completing her doctoral research in Dr. Robert Bradley’s Public Health Sciences and Basic Sciences laboratory at the Hutch, a research team that studies the role of ribonucleic acid, or RNA — a messenger that carries instructions from DNA for controlling protein synthesis — in a variety of diseases. Feng studies a type of cellular quality control, known as nonsense-mediated decay, in normal muscle cell development and in the muscular degenerative disease facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD. Feng found that the nonsense mediated decay process goes awry in muscle cells of patients with FSHD, causing extra RNA to build up in those cells, damaging the muscles.

“Qing's research is notable for its remarkable breadth as well as depth,” said Bradley, Feng’s research mentor. “Her discoveries were possible only thanks to her persistence and scientific insight.”

Named for the late Dr. Harold Weintraub, the award honors Weintraub’s scientific leadership in the field of molecular biology and his legacy as an extraordinary mentor, colleague, collaborator, and friend. He was passionate about understanding how a certain protein drives cell development, investigating RNA interference, and applying molecular manipulations pioneered in his lab to other areas of medical research, such as stem cell transplantation. Weintraub helped found the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch and died of brain cancer in 1995 at age 49.

Weintraub Award recipients will travel to Seattle for an award symposium May 5 on the Fred Hutch campus. At the symposium, recipients will give scientific presentations and have the opportunity to convene with other students and faculty members. Each awardee will receive a certificate, travel expenses, and honorarium from The Weintraub and Groudine Fund, created to foster intellectual exchange through supporting programs for graduate students, fellows and visiting scholars.

After seeing many other Weintraub Award recipients pass through the Hutch in past years, Feng was especially excited to be chosen this year, she said.

“As a student at the Hutch, and seeing all the recipients giving talks, they were role models to me,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible that I was selected.”

— Claire Hudson and Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

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