Good News: Innovator award to Dr. Marie Bleakley for new leukemia immunotherapies

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Dr. Marie Bleakley, a pediatric oncologist and stem cell transplant physician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, researches ways to manipulate and harness the power of the immune system to fight leukemia and other cancers. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Marie Bleakley receives innovator award for new leukemia immunotherapies

Dr. Marie Bleakley, a pediatric oncology physician-scientist at Fred Hutch, has received a 2017 Innovative Research Grant in immune-oncology from Stand Up To Cancer, or SU2C.

Bleakley will use the three-year, $750,000 SU2C award to develop T-cell therapies for a type of acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, called “core binding factor.”

“The SU2C award means a great deal to me and my research team,” said Bleakley, an associate member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch. “It means that we will be able to devote time and resources to a very interesting and promising area of our research, to be creative and focused, and move this translational research project much closer to the clinic, ultimately bringing new immunotherapy to patients with leukemia.”

Core binding factor AML represents 15 percent of all cases of AML, a frequently fatal blood cancer. It can be cured with chemotherapy, but 30 to 40 percent of patients don’t reach complete remission or do achieve remission but then relapse.

Bleakley believes immunotherapy gives new hope for these patients.

Immunotherapy with T cells designed to recognize and kill cancer has been highly effective in other blood cancers. But the challenge is that most T-cell immunotherapies target proteins that are on the surface of normal blood cells as well as the cancerous ones. Such widespread destruction can create severe side effects for patients.

Bleakley’s group is working to develop immunotherapy that targets cancer-specific proteins within the cell, providing a more focused anti-cancer approach.

They’ve already discovered that the abnormal “fusion” proteins that are found in core binding factor, or CBF, AML can be recognized by immune T cells isolated from the blood of normal volunteer donors. Now they want to know more about the parts of the protein that the T cells respond to, which will provide clues as to how to manipulate T cells to make them hunt down and kill cancer.

With the SU2C award, the Fred Hutch scientists will evaluate T-cell immune responses in CBF AML patients compared with healthy volunteers. The team will identify CBF-specific T cells in patients and study the relationship between those cells and leukemia control, asking the question of whether the T cells help the patients stay in remission. 

From there, the researchers hope to design new forms of immunotherapy, including the genetic transfer of natural T-cell receptors into patients’ T cells, allowing them to kill CBF AML; or vaccines to boost the patients’ natural T-cell responses.

“The bottom line is by understanding the immune response to CBF AML we should be able to develop new forms of immunotherapy to protect patients with CBF from relapse,” Bleakley said.

SU2C announced the 10 recipients of the 2017 Innovative Research Grants April 3 at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The awards, funded by a Bristol-Myers Squibb grant to SU2C, “support early-career scientists with novel ideas that have a strong potential to impact patient care,” according to the program’s website.

— Molly McElroy / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Anthony Rongvaux
Dr. Anthony Rongvaux Fred Hutch file

Dr. Anthony Rongvaux receives grant from Lupus Research Alliance

Dr. Anthony Rongvaux, an immunology researcher in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch, has received a grant from the Lupus Research Alliance to further his discoveries of the mechanisms that may cause or worsen lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that impacts more than 1.5 million Americans.

Specifically, he will study immune system molecules known as interferons, which protect us from infections but also can spur tissue damage in patients with lupus. Rongvaux and his team have discovered a previously unknown mechanism by which proteins known as capsases block interferons. Using state-of-the-art technologies, they will investigate how caspases regulate interferons in lupus. They also will test molecules that stimulate caspases, some of which are under development as potential treatments for diseases such as cancer, to determine whether they reverse lupus symptoms in mice.

What this means for people with lupus: Rongvaux will explore whether the molecules involved in causing or worsening lupus are potential targets to validate and advance new treatments that may reverse the symptoms of the disease, which can attack healthy cells and tissues in many parts of the body.

Rongvaux is among 10 new recipients of the Lupus Research Alliance Novel Research Grants, which will support his work for $100,000 a year over the next three years.

— Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Benjamin Greer
Dr. Benjamin Greer Fred Hutch file

Drs. Benjamin Greer, Wui-Jin Koh win NCCN award

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network, or NCCN, has honored Drs. Benjamin Greer and Wui-Jin Koh, two clinical researchers with affiliations at Fred Hutch, at its Board of Directors dinner held in conjunction with the NCCN 22nd annual conference last month in Orlando, Florida.

Both received the NCCN Board of Producers Award, which is given to individuals “who, over the past year, have exceeded expectations and provided exemplary service in helping NCCN achieve its mission through their passion to improve the care of people with cancer.”

Dr. Wui-Jin Koh
Dr. Wui-Jin Koh Fred Hutch file

Greer and Koh are co-chairs of the NCCN Guidelines Panel for Cervical, Uterine, and Vulvar Cancers, and they pioneered the development process for the NCCN Framework for Resource Stratification of NCCN Guidelines. According to an NCCN statement, this process resulted in a new paradigm in treating locally advanced cervical cancer when radiation therapy is unavailable, which was adopted in select low-resource settings. Greer and Koh also initiated the NCCN Guidelines for Vulvar Cancer, first published in 2016.

Greer, a gynecologic oncologist, now retired, is former medical director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Affiliate Network and served as a leader in SCCA’s partner institutions — UW Medicine and Fred Hutch — since 1980. Koh, an affiliate of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch, is a professor of radiation oncology at UW Medical School and serves as medical director of Radiation Oncology at SCCA.

— Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service

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