Good News: Mary Potts, Fred Hutch's Cancer Surveillance System guru, wins award for distinguished service

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Mary Potts
“I’ve never understood why there can’t be group awards,” said Mary Potts, recipient of the Constance L. Percy Award for Distinguished Service, who’s been with the Cancer Surveillance System at Fred Hutch for nearly 36 years. “But I’m very honored to receive this and have them recognize my ideas." Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Mary Potts, Fred Hutch’s Cancer Surveillance System guru, wins award for distinguished service

Mary Potts, longtime director of information services for Fred Hutch’s Cancer Surveillance System, was honored recently with the prestigious Constance L. Percy Award for Distinguished Service by the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, or NAACCR.

The award, established to recognize exceptional long-term contributions, was given to Potts “for her significant contributions to improvements in registry operations, data quality and the development of educational tools that have benefited the cancer surveillance community.”

Fred Hutch’s Cancer Surveillance System, or CSS, collects population-based data on cancer incidence and survival in 13 counties in western Washington state, providing public health scientists and health care practitioners with the ability to track trends in the incidence of all forms of cancer, identify and investigate patterns of cancer occurrence, and monitor trends in mortality and survival for specific cancers. Established in 1974, the CSS database has been used in hundreds of research studies and is part of the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results, or SEER, program, which monitors cancer incidence and survival in approximately 28 percent of the U.S. population. 

Potts, who’s received numerous awards for her work, including a 2016 Elekta Award from the National Cancer Registrars Association and the Hutch’s very first Margaret T. Farwell Outstanding Staff Career Contribution Award, said she wished the award had been given to the entire CSS group.

“I’ve never understood why there can’t be group awards,” said Potts, who’s been with CSS for nearly 36 years. “But I’m very honored to receive this and have them recognize my ideas. But what are ideas unless there’s a team behind you to help actualize them? I’m constantly looking at how we do what we do, trying to find ways to maintain performance or enhance it. I like analyzing processes. But it’s taken the entire staff to get behind each crazy idea I come up with. Thanks to the talent and hard work of the outstanding staff, my ideas become reality.”

According to Potts, the CSS team — which repeatedly has taken top honors for its quality data — is at the forefront of developing methodology for training and data collection in the cancer-registration field. Two of its biggest contributions have included the push for regionwide electronic-pathology reporting and the development of a web-based training program known as SEER*Educate, both of which started at Fred Hutch before being rolled out nationally.

A certified tumor registrar, registered health information administrator and certified public accountant, Potts as far back as the mid-‘90s started asking pathology labs to submit their full electronic reports rather than allowing the staff to collect only cribbed bits from the pathology reports in medical records.

“I thought it would be more accurate for investigators to have the original document to evaluate how the cancer case was reflected in the database rather than an abstractor’s interpretation of a pathologist's findings,” she said, adding that maintaining a database of original pathology reports also allows CSS to go back retrospectively and query the database as new research questions arise.

Potts was responsible for launching SEER*Educate, an application used to train new abstractors and provide continuing education to experienced ones.

“People had been complaining for decades that it’s difficult to find qualified people to work in this field and train them,” she said. “So we created a web-based training application to help us and others build a strong data collection team. Before SEER*Educate became a reality, we did much of the groundwork using a simplified version of the current application on our own time and demonstrated its effectiveness  as a training tool with our own staff.”

Potts said she’d been pushing for this type of training methodology for nearly 15 years but had difficulty obtaining funding to roll out the application on a national basis. Now that it is available, it’s become quite popular, she said.

“We’ve been expanding the training content on the website for four years and, honestly, you’d think people had just discovered the time and cost savings associated with this type of training methodology given its high volume use over the last year,” she said. “It’s the cat’s meow now.”

Dr. Steve Schwartz, co-principal investigator of the CSS along with Dr. Christopher Li, was quick to praise Potts, calling her “a force to be reckoned with in many ways.”

“Mary has worked tirelessly in the cancer registrar community for over three decades to improve the quality and timeliness of the data that the CSS generates for use by epidemiologists, clinicians and others to assess progress against cancer in our region and throughout the country,” he said. “Many other people have adopted her ideas.”

Schwartz said his and prior CSS principal investigators’ general strategy has been to “let her be as creative as possible and get out of her way so she can get the things done that she needs to get done.”

“Mary has incredible intuition and ideas,” he said. “She figures out the problems that are facing cancer registration and comes up with really amazing solutions while others are still figuring out if the problem exists. She is way ahead of the game and she’s so far ahead that we’ve been, certainly for many years, ahead of the national scene.”

Established in 1987, NAACCR is a collaborative umbrella organization for cancer registries, governmental agencies, professional associations and private groups in North America interested in enhancing the quality and use of cancer registry data. The first recipient of its Constance L. Percy Award was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who received the award for his work on the 1992 Cancer Registries Amendment Act, his first bill as a freshman lawmaker.

Potts said she was particularly touched to receive the award since she knew the woman for whom it was named.

“I happened to have known Connie Percy. And I knew Margaret Farwell,” she said. “It really is something when people I’ve admired tremendously in my career have awards named after them and then I receive that award.”

— Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Michael Emerman
Fred Hutch HIV researcher Dr. Michael Emerman has received the 2017 KT Jeang Retrovirology Prize for his contributions to the field of retrovirology. Fred Hutch file photo

HIV researcher Dr. Michael Emerman awarded KT Jeang Retrovirology Prize

The scientific journal Retrovirology has awarded the 2017 KT Jeang Retrovirology Prize to Dr. Michael Emerman, an HIV researcher in the Human Biology and Basic Sciences divisions at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Established in 2005, the prestigious prize is conferred annually upon a mid-career scientist who has made outstanding contributions to the field of retrovirology. The field includes studies of HIV, the virus responsible for the AIDS pandemic.

“This is a huge honor for me to be chosen by my peers from so many great investigators who are trying to understand and defeat HIV,” said Emerman.

Emerman has been contributing valuable insights into retroviruses since his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. There, he found that cells infected by HIV could employ epigenetic modifications — molecular modifications that can regulate whether genes are turned on or off without affecting DNA sequence — to keep viral genes turned off after they had integrated into host chromosomes, a key step in HIV’s life cycle. The findings have timely implications for today’s HIV cure research, as scientists seek to prevent expression of HIV genes that have inserted into host DNA.

During his postdoctoral work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris with Dr. Luc Montagnier, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine as co-discoverer of HIV, Emerman uncovered important aspects of HIV biology that enable it to bind and infect cells. He also outlined mechanisms that HIV uses to ensure production of viral proteins.

Many current gene therapies rely on lentiviruses — a retrovirus subset that includes HIV — to transfer genes to slow-growing or nondividing cells. In his lab at Fred Hutch, Emerman’s team demonstrated that HIV doesn’t rely on mitosis (in which a dividing cell’s two sets of chromosomes are separated) to infect cells — unlike most other retroviruses. These insights contributed to the development of lentiviral gene-therapy vectors. To produce these findings, Emerman and his team developed one of the first indicator cell lines that allowed researchers to measure HIV infectivity. This important scientific tool, and its derivatives, has been used by hundreds of labs worldwide for measuring infectious HIV in tissue-culture experiments.

Later, with Hutch colleague Dr. Harmit Malik, Emerman pioneered the field of paleovirology to study the “arms race” between viruses and host antiviral proteins. In the course of these studies, the scientists discovered evidence of mutations in the antiviral protein APOBEC3G that allowed it to avoid being targeted for destruction by the HIV protein Vif. They also calculated that primate lentiviruses are 5–10 million years old — much older than previously thought. As part of these studies, Emerman and Malik have also identified unique activities of host antiviral factors as well as deficiencies in the human immune system that leave humans susceptible to lentiviral infections.

Emerman’s stellar work with more than 30 graduate student and postdoctoral fellow mentees led to the award for which he said he is most proud: the McDougall Mentoring Award, named in honor of the late Dr. Jim McDougall, a Fred Hutch faculty member from 1978 to 2003.

He has received numerous other honors, including an NIH Merit Award, and in 2016 was elected to the American Academy of Microbiology. Emerman is editor-in-chief of Virology and associate editor of PLOS Pathogens. 

— Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Robert Bradley
Dr. Robert Bradley, the recipient of a career-development grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said he'll use the funds to develop targeted therapy for a blood disease called myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS. Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Robert Bradley receives Leukemia & Lymphoma Society award

Fred Hutch molecular and computational biologist Dr. Robert Bradley has been awarded a prestigious career development grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to support his blood cancer-related research, which focuses on how slight changes in fundamental processes in the cell can trigger the blood disease myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, and leukemia.

The grant, known as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Scholar Award, is awarded to early- to mid-career faculty researchers, Bradley said. It confers a five-year, $550,000 grant that is not earmarked to specific research projects, in contrast to the majority of government research funding. The less restricted funding of the Scholar Award will allow Bradley and his research team to pursue new avenues of research “that are riskier but promising in the long term,” he said.

Bradley and his research group study RNA, a jack-of-all-trades molecule that plays multiple roles in the cell, including as a go-between of genetic information from DNA to protein. A large focus of his laboratory, which is affiliated with the Hutch’s Public Health Sciences and Basic Sciences divisions, is trying to understand how a fundamental process that alters the RNA of the majority of human genes is linked to MDS and acute myeloid leukemia.

Bradley is interested in how insights from basic science studies can lead to new therapeutic advances, and he said the new award will help drive some of that work. He and his team previously found that a single mutation that affects the molecular process known as RNA splicing can drive MDS development in a mouse model of the disease — and that a drug that blocks this process can boost survival time in mice with leukemias that are driven by this mutation. He and his colleagues are now testing other, similar compounds in the hopes of finding a new targeted therapy for this large class of blood diseases — approximately 60 percent of patients with MDS and 25 percent of those with AML carry splicing-related mutations.

In addition to the new research possibilities the award will fund, Bradley is flattered to be recognized for his work by the society, which is well-known in the blood cancer research field. “I feel honored to be a recipient,” he said.

— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

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