Prostate cancer researcher cycles to save lives

Five-year Obliteride veteran Dr. Pete Nelson rides to make inroads against all cancers
Dr. Pete Nelson
Dr. Pete Nelson enjoys the Obliteride camaraderie. Photo courtesy of Obliteride

Dr. Pete Nelson has scaled Tour de France ascents. He’s cycled from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, in support of a good cause and biked up and down mountains. He enjoys everything from the amazing engineering found in modern bicycles to the feeling of growing satisfaction as his fitness improves in spring training rides. And perhaps best of all, rides are followed by a high that makes everything, from food to beer, taste fantastic.

“I think your senses are really heightened,” said the prostate cancer physician-scientist of the physical response to biking. “Bicycling moves at a nice speed: you’re able to take in the scenery, stop whenever you want to, talk to people — there’s something special about it.”

This "something’" helps make Obliteride, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s annual cycling event to fundraise for cancer research, very special too. Nelson, a faculty member at Fred Hutch who holds the Endowed Chair for Prostate Cancer, has participated in every Obliteride since the event’s inception five years ago, teaming up with a core group centered on fellow Seattle biking enthusiasts, prostate-cancer researchers, and cancer survivors. The event has it all: friends, food, a powerful cause, and an excuse to “get out and have fun,” Nelson said.

Obliteride is fun with a purpose, and it’s already benefitting patients. Using funds raised through the event, Nelson and his colleagues were able to jump-start a research project that has provided unexpected insights into the association between certain types of inherited mutations and aggressive prostate cancer. Their findings are leading to more personalized therapies for certain men with prostate cancer and improved cancer screening for their family members.

A way to make a mark

Even though Nelson’s own research has directly benefitted from Obliteride, his goals are greater. He rides for everyone touched by cancer, including the men with aggressive, advanced prostate cancer whom he sees every Friday in the clinic.

Fundraising through Obliteride “is one way to hasten the chances of finding a cure — for every cancer,” he said. “And the more we study cancer, we realize how interconnected they are. An insight or inroad in one cancer has the potential to impact all types of cancer.”

The event immediately appealed to Nelson, already an avid cyclist. He thought it was a perfect way to raise awareness of Fred Hutch and support cancer research in a cycling-mad city like Seattle.

“Once people experience the event, they always do it again,” said Nelson, who rides the “amazingly well-organized” 100-mile route each year. “That Friday night dinner at Gas Works [Park, in Seattle,] is particularly moving. It’s a spectacular place to come together … I think it’s a wonderful community event.”

This year, Nelson is the captain of Team IPCR, named after the Institute for Prostate Cancer Research, a collaborative effort of Fred Hutch and University of Washington Medicine. (Nelson, like many of his teammates, is an IPCR researcher.) Each team member has their own unique reason for joining, but many ride in honor of loved ones who have experienced cancer. Nelson’s mother, Ann, the team’s “hero” who lost her husband and both parents to cancer, also flies in every year to ride the 25-mile course.

“She’s been an inspiration to other people,” said Nelson. “She’s over 80 now, and so when people say ‘Well, I don’t know if I can ride 25 miles,’ I say, ‘Well, my mom can ride 25 miles, so you can ride 25 miles!’”

This year team members aimed to grow their ranks by bringing one friend each. Ann Nelson reached across international borders by recruiting a friend from the Netherlands to ride Obliteride 2017.

Flexible funding for cancer research

The power of funds raised by philanthropic events like Obliteride is that they provide flexible sources of funding, said Nelson. Hutch leadership can direct donations to areas of greatest need or funnel donations into innovative projects.

Funds raised through Obliteride are disbursed to different areas and projects each year. In the first year of Obliteride, teams competed to bring in funds and the winning team was awarded a bonus on top of the donations it raised. The IPCR team took first.

“It was a healthy competition that motivated our IPCR community to generously step up and support the team,” said Nelson. “We used the Obliteride resources to launch a really interesting project which allowed us to test the idea of precision medicine.”

Their project examined the “landscape” of genetic mutations in prostate cancer, noting how frequently specific mutations popped up in prostate tumors of different stages. By clarifying the quantity and quality of cancer mutations, scientists gain insight into which alterations may play important roles in promoting cancer development or maintaining cells in a cancerous state. Because the researchers weren’t aiming to test a specific hypothesis, the project wasn’t the type of research that the National Institutes of Health generally supports — so the Obliteride funds were key to making the study possible.

The scientists looked at both inherited mutations — those that men with prostate cancer had received from their parents — and mutations that arose within a given patient’s tumor. They found that an unexpectedly high proportion of men with metastatic prostate cancer had inherited mutations in DNA-repair genes — meaning that they were born with certain mutations that raised their risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer.

Nelson and his IPCR colleagues confirmed these findings in a second, larger study published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine. They reported that 12 percent of men with metastatic prostate cancer had inherited mutations in genes that encode key proteins involved in maintaining error-free DNA. The most well-known of these genes are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain mutations in these two genes dramatically raise the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in women — and also predispose men to aggressive prostate cancer.

The discovery had powerful, lifesaving implications for both patients and their family members. Certain classes of cancer drugs target these types of mutations, so screening patients for the DNA-repair mutations could help oncologists guide them toward a more tailored and effective treatment plan.

And because the mutations are passed from parent to child, the siblings and children of a man who carries such mutations may also harbor them — along with an increased risk of prostate, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Family members who test positive for specific mutations could be candidates for screening strategies designed to catch tumors in their earliest stages.

“Our ability to start that whole process and carry it out really was helped by the Obliteride that very first year,” said Nelson. He and his colleagues have begun implementing their findings to improve treatment for men with metastatic prostate cancer and help family members assess their own cancer risk.

While Nelson’s cycling already has helped the patients and family members who inspire his Obliteride participation, he continues to be motivated to help other cancer patients through the event.  

“That personal connection to someone in your family may be your reason to ride, but you’re clearly going to impact many others, including future generations,” he said. “It’s not hard to find a reason to join Obliteride.”

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at

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