Eight Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientists, many of whom have joint appointments at the University of Washington, have received funding for pilot projects to explore highly innovative concepts that have the potential to improve the lives of cancer patients.
A combination of funding from the Fred Hutch / UW Cancer Consortium’s Cancer Center Support Grant and donor funding from Safeway Inc. will provide the researchers with at least $80,000 for their projects.
“Thanks to generous contributions made by customers in stores, Safeway provided nearly $700,000 to support cutting-edge research by early-stage investigators at Fred Hutch and UW,” said Dr. Elizabeth Prescott, director of Institutional Giving at the Hutch. The Cancer Center Support Grant expects to award additional Safeway-supported pilot awards in the coming year, she said.
Dr. Stacey Cohen of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch and the UW Division of Oncology / Seattle Cancer Care Alliance seeks to identify precise, individualized therapies for colon cancer by developing a bank of primary colorectal-cancer organoids — three-dimensional tumor cultures grown in the lab that mimic innate tumor biology. She will test these tumor cultures against a chemical library of Food and Drug Administration–approved and novel, targeted therapies. The drug responses will be compared to the genomic signatures of the organoids. Ultimately she aims to use this biobank to create a drug screen that will help better inform treatment decisions for patients.
Dr. Sita Kugel of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch will use a combination of genetically engineered mouse models and human tissues to study the mechanisms of metastasis, or spread, of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. In addition to leading to better understanding metastasis, she hopes the work may lead to the development of a new mouse model of metastatic pancreatic cancer to be used in future basic and translational research.
Dr. Kerryn Reding of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch and the UW School of Nursing aims to study racial differences in breast cancer treatment and survival between African-American women and non-Hispanic white women. Reding and colleagues are leveraging decades of data from the Women’s Health Initiative to investigate how departures from standards of care influence racial disparities in survival. This pilot funding will enable the researchers to contribute to the understanding of racial disparities as well as apply for a larger grant to further delve into contributors to treatment differences among breast cancer patients.
Dr. Anthony Rongvaux of the Clinical Research Division plans to study how subsets of immune cells called macrophages may promote the spread of malignant melanoma and other cancers. Their findings may lead to the development of new therapies that target specific macrophage types to sensitize tumors to therapeutic interventions, including standard chemotherapies and immunotherapies.
Dr. Supriya Saha of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch and the UW School of Medicine aims to use high-throughput drug screens to identify new therapies for intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, or ICC, a deadly liver cancer that has been on the rise for several decades and has an average survival of less than a year. His preliminary research has identified certain drugs that may be effective against a subset of ICC tumors that harbor specific genetic mutations. He proposes to develop new models of this cancer that can be used in the laboratory to evaluate which drugs may be the most promising candidates for future clinical trials.
Dr. Veena Shankaran of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch and UW Medical Oncology is a researcher in the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research who studies the “financial toxicity” of cancer treatment. She will use her pilot funds to test the feasibility of a new, comprehensive financial-navigation program for newly diagnosed cancer patients. The program will involve educating patients about the financial aspects of cancer care and connecting them with organizations that provide financial assistance, such as budget planning, copayment assistance, and grants for non-medical spending such as rent and mortgage. Ultimately Shankaran and colleagues hope to use these data to inform future studies to investigate the impact of a comprehensive financial-navigation program on patients’ financial and clinical outcomes.
Dr. Susan Parkhurst, a biologist in the Basic Sciences Division, studies mechanisms essential to the development and normal functioning of cells. Recently she and her colleagues discovered a protein called WASH, short for Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, which plays a role in how cells transport large related groups of molecules (macromolecular complexes) out of the nucleus, a special compartment within cells that houses and controls genetic information. Parkhurst and colleagues will use the pilot funding to study the consequences when this process goes awry, which can lead to diseases such as neurological disorders and cancer. Insight into these mechanisms is expected to contribute to the identification of new drug targets for these diseases, as well as antiviral interventions for patients with compromised immune systems.
Dr. Taran Gujral of the Human Biology Division studies the tumor microenvironment — the milieu of cells that surround and interact with the primary tumor and impact tumor growth, migration, invasion, metastasis and drug resistance. With his pilot award, Gujral proposes to develop new technology to break down walls and membranes of individual cells isolated from live tissues to provide a comprehensive understanding of the interactions between tumor cells and noncancerous host cells.
In addition, several UW-based researchers received pilot funding from the grant competition. Drs. Sergei Doulatov and Dan Fu received support from Safeway, while Dr. Shreeram Akilesh received a CCSG pilot grant.
Dr. M. Robyn Andersen, a health psychologist and epidemiologist in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch, has received a one-year, $75,000 grant from the Seattle-based Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer to test the effect of meditation on stress reduction in ovarian cancer patients.
Specifically, she will use the James A. Harting Pilot Study Award to assess the effectiveness of meditation-like exercises, along with a smartphone-connected feedback system, to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety in patients who have completed initial cancer treatment.
In conducting the research, called the RESTART Project, Andersen and colleagues hope to refine the intervention for ovarian cancer survivors and explore its potential to improve their health-related quality of life after treatment. The researchers also hope to explore biological changes associated with the practice of meditation-like exercises to determine their potential for promoting disease- or progression-free survival after initial treatment.
The Rivkin Center has previously funded Andersen’s research, including a first-of-its-kind study to identify symptoms of ovarian cancer. The symptom-screening tool she developed is now used widely to help identify women with the disease.
Fred Hutch and the University of Washington are the top-funded institutions to receive funding from the Rivkin Center, with more than $1.6 million awarded to date through 11 grants to each institution.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was recently recognized as No. 26 out of 301 companies chosen as “America’s Best Midsize Employers,” according to Forbes magazine. To compile the list, released Tuesday, May 9, Forbes surveyed 30,000 employees at large (5,000-plus U.S. employees) and midsize (between 1,000 and 5,000 U.S. employees) organizations in 25 different industries, ranging from aerospace to utilities.
“Fred Hutch is known for its world-class, lifesaving research, and the Forbes survey results reinforce that our advances — from harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer to leading the development of an HIV vaccine — wouldn’t be possible without our organization’s most valuable asset: our people,” said Lynne Kornblatt, vice president of Human Resources at the Hutch.