This year’s GeekWire Awards include four finalists with strong ties to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Online voting is open through April 21; you can vote daily, and rallying others to vote via social media is encouraged (hashtag: #gwawards).
The winners will be revealed at an award ceremony the evening of May 4 at the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly EMP) in Seattle. Winners will be chosen in more than a dozen categories, from Next Tech Titan to Geek of the Year; finalists in several more categories have yet to be announced.
Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic
The Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic — which officially opened last fall at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and is named in recognition of the Bezos family’s commitment to immunotherapy research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — has been selected as one of five finalists in the Newcomer of the Year category.
The Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic is a first-of-its-kind clinic dedicated to providing innovative immunotherapies for cancer patients in clinical trials. The clinic will allow researchers to conduct twice as many immunotherapy trials in the next year in pursuit of speeding cures for cancer.
According to GeekWire co-founder John Cook, the Newcomer of the Year award recognizes a company or organization that has arrived in the community in the past 18 months.
Nohla Therapeutics, a Fred Hutch spinoff company focused on developing off-the-shelf, on-demand universal-donor therapies that require no tissue-type matching, has been selected as one of five finalists in the Startup of the Year category.
Nohla, founded in 2015 by Dr. Colleen Delaney, director of the Cord Blood Program at Fred Hutch, is developing a cord blood stem cell product that has the potential to develop into any blood or immune cell the body needs. The product could be used to reduce the risk of complications and speed recovery in patients with cancer and other life-threatening diseases, including those who undergo blood stem cell transplantation.
“Everyone at Nohla is humbled and incredibly excited about being nominated by GeekWire for Startup of the Year,” Delaney said. “This nomination validates the important work we are doing to change the face of cancer treatment for our patients, who also have contributed so much for us to get here. We hope that we can count on our supporters to go out and VOTE!”
According to GeekWire co-founder John Cook, the award “recognizes a Pacific Northwest tech company that’s four years old or younger that’s on the brink of doing great things.”
Also in the running for a GeekWire award this year is Nohla’s chief executive officer, Kathleen Fanning, who is one of five finalists for Northwest tech’s Hire of the Year.
StemBox, a company founded by former Fred Hutch research technician Kina McAllister that makes subscription science kits for girls. StemBox is a finalist for the Geeks Give Back award.
Inspired by her own love of science — and her struggles to overcome gender stereotypes that boxed her in at times — McAllister is developing boxes of appealing, approachable experiments-of-the-month for girls aged 7 to 14. The name comes from STEM, short for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” historically fields in which women are underrepresented.
McAllister said she hopes girls can use the boxes as a tool to break free from the confines often created by cultural definitions of who should be a scientist — and pursue science beyond stereotypes.
Now in its ninth year, the GeekWire Awards is one of the most hotly anticipated events in the Seattle tech community, bringing together hundreds to celebrate innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit. The event routinely sells out.
— Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service
Every infection leaves a record. Unlike ancient societies that transcribed their histories on papyrus scrolls, our infections leave their traces in the immune system. Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Adaptive Biotechnologies have begun to decode these histories in new research published online earlier this month in Nature Genetics.
Dr. Harlan Robins of Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences and Human Biology divisions led a team that decrypted the signature of specialized immune cells that had responded to cytomegalovirus infection. They also were able to detail immune signatures that correlate with particular HLA gene variants, which define tissue type and are used to match transplant donors and recipientsl.
“The goal was to try to see if we can read the adaptive immune response,” Robins explained.
He and his team focused on immune cells known as T cells, part of what is known as the adaptive immune response due to its ability to respond and adapt to dangers like cancer or pathogens. T cells carry disease-seeking molecules known as T-cell receptors, or TCRs, which help them recognize and destroy infected or cancerous cells. Each newly formed T cell carries a unique TCR, which is encoded by unique genes. Robins and his colleagues have developed methods to accurately sequence millions of such TCR genes from individual patients.
In the face of a tumor or infection, the small fraction of T cells whose TCRs can recognize the specific danger multiply in number. Some also evolve into long-lived cells, called memory cells, which act as a living record of a distant danger.
The long-lived memory T cells “are presenting the information about every disease you have, and every disease you’ve ever had. All in your blood at any given time,” Robins said. “We have all this technology that allows us to pull out information from the adaptive immune system, but we don’t really know what most of it means.”
To begin the process of learning how to read the immune system, Robins, co-first authors Dr. Ryan Emerson at Adaptive Biotechnologies and graduate student William Dewitt at Fred Hutch, and their colleagues sequenced the TCR genes from blood samples taken from 666 healthy adults in the Seattle area. About half of Seattleites have CMV, a chronic infection that generally produces no symptoms in people with robust immune systems. After turning up nearly 90 million unique TCR gene sequences, the researchers surveyed the results for TCRs that arose primarily in donors with CMV compared to those without the virus.
Based on these results, they developed algorithms that used TCR sequences to predict whether an individual is infected with CMV. They then validated their methods in a new set of TCR sequences drawn from 120 different donors. They found that their methods could accurately identify 90 percent of patients with CMV and, just as important, distinguish those without CMV with 89 percent accuracy.
Furthermore, results from the team's method agreed 95 percent of th etime with results obtained using current CMV-detecting methods. This equals the agreement seen when current methods are compared, so the new method equals the current standard, Robins noted.
The team used the same approach to predict HLA types and developed methods that enabled them to accurately match the majority of donors to their HLA genes.
In the process, the group put together a publicly available TCR library from more than 800 individuals — the largest ever published, to Robins’ knowledge.
The current study is just a first attempt at decoding a patient’s immune past and present via their immune system. And the approach is not restricted to pathogens. Robins predicts that TCR sequences could be linked to cancers and autoimmune disorders, in which a person’s immune cells mistake healthy cells for diseased cells.
“We should eventually be able to take a small bit of blood and be able to say, ‘Here are the pathogens you had 10 years ago, here’s what you have now,’” he said. “‘Oh, and by the way, you have lung cancer.’”
Now, the plan is to massively expand the approach and use new methods to create a map of T-cell receptors and their targets.
“As we go, the bigger that [map] gets, we’ll be able to really understand the vast majority of immune responses over time,” he said.
— Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service
Two Fred Hutch faculty members have been named 2017 Kimmel Scholars. Dr. Taran Gujral of the Human Biology Division and Dr. Arvind ‘Rasi’ Subramaniam of the Basic Sciences and Public Health Sciences divisions are among the final class of 15 award recipients.
The Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research initiated the Kimmel Scholars Program in 1997 to “jump-start the careers of the most promising and creative researchers and physician-scientists seeking solutions to the riddle of cancer,” according to the Foundation’s website. Each scholar will receive $200,000 over two years to support their cancer research.
Gujral has identified a new player in a well-studied family of protein chains that transmit external signals to the cell’s nucleus, where they trigger new gene expression and cell-state changes. He and his team have linked this protein, known as Frizzled2, or Fzd2, to cellular changes that confer upon tumor cells the ability to invade tissue and metastasize.
The Kimmel Scholar Award will allow Gujral to expand his research and examine the role that Fzd2 may play in dampening immune attacks against tumors and allowing tumors to evade the immune system. He also plans to test whether antibodies against Fzd2 can reverse this immune inhibition and allow immune cells to eliminate tumors.
Subramaniam will focus on understanding how a little-appreciated type of genetic mutation may drive cancer formation. Known as synonymous mutations, these genetic alterations change a gene’s DNA sequence but not the sequence of amino acids that make up the protein it encodes. Synonymous mutations may affect protein production in ways that could promote cancer development.
Supported by his Kimmel Scholar Award, Subramaniam will work to better predict how synonymous mutations affect protein production in cancer cells. In the process, he aims to determine which synonymous mutations are linked to cancer and develop methods to predict what effects each may have on cancer progression.
— Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service
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