On Tuesday, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland addressed lawmakers in Washington, D.C., as an expert witness at a hearing held by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., convened to discuss National Institutes of Health funding for biomedical research, particularly the role of a type of funding called facilities and administrative costs.
Invited to speak on behalf of independent research centers, Gilliland emphasized how federal research funding drives innovation that leads to dramatic returns on taxpayers’ investment, both in dollars and in lives saved.
“When we have the opportunity to be creative, we can think about strategies like taking cancer patients’ own immune cells out of their body, genetically reprogramming them … to seek out and destroy cancer cells,” he said, referring to emerging immunotherapies like CAR T-cell therapy. He recalled one clinical trial participant, Stephanie Florence, who is alive today after receiving one of those experimental treatments. “That return — for me personally — that one life saved, is extraordinarily important.”
He also testified that reducing government funding for research, including by limiting funds for resources and infrastructure that support multiple projects, would limit progress and innovation at a time when, he said, “we’re at an inflection point where we have potentially curative approaches.”
Joining Gilliland as expert witnesses at the hearing were Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma; Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine; and Dr. Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California, San Francisco.
— Andrea Detter / Fred Hutch News Service
Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Steven Henikoff will lead a new pilot project funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as part of an effort to support the Human Cell Atlas, a global collaborative research project that aims to map and better characterize every cell in the human body.
The grants, awarded Oct. 16, were the first of their kind for the CZI, a philanthropic organization formed nearly two years ago by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Dr. Priscilla Chan. CZI received nearly 500 applications in response to its announcement of the pilot grants and funded 38 projects.
The research projects are primarily aimed at developing new techniques or ways to analyze large amounts of data generated by the Human Cell Atlas, which Henikoff described as akin to the next generation of the Human Genome Project. The Atlas project’s goal is to map and define all human cells in their healthy state to lay the groundwork for better understanding how the cells change in different diseases.
Henikoff’s one-year pilot project will expand on a new technique created in his lab to map where certain proteins bind to DNA across the human genome. The technology is known as “Cleavage Under Targets and Release Using Nuclease,” or CUT&RUN.
CUT&RUN is an improvement on the standard lab technique to map DNA-binding proteins, Henikoff said, because it yields higher precision in understanding where a given protein sits on the DNA. Henikoff and a postdoctoral fellow in his lab, Dr. Peter Skene, developed the CUT&RUN technique and showed that it works on yeast and human cells in the lab. They published a description of the methodology in the journal eLife in January. Their next step was to figure out a way to scale the technique for use on smaller numbers of cells and across many more samples in an automated way, Henikoff said, but they didn’t have a particular application in mind.
When Henikoff saw that the Human Cell Atlas was looking for new techniques via the CZI-funded pilot grants, “it was a perfect fit,” he said. “They want to do millions of samples, often with limited numbers of cells; they actually have an application for [our technique].”
As they develop the high-throughput version of CUT&RUN, the researchers are planning to use a type of blood stem cell that can develop into different types of immune cells. Henikoff is hoping, in the course of further developing the technology, they might also learn something interesting about the biology of blood stem cell development, which goes awry in leukemia and other blood disorders.
In that way, the project “also fits with what the Hutch is best at,” Henikoff said, referring to the Hutch’s origins with the development of bone marrow transplantation for leukemia and other blood cancers. “This is a leukemia place.”
— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service
Dr. Seth Pollack, a physician-scientist at Fred Hutch, has received two awards in support of his efforts to develop a new type of immunotherapy for sarcoma, a connective-tissue cancer.
The Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy awarded Pollack $300,000 to study the anti-cancer effects of a combination of immune cells — CD8 and CD4 T cells — that have been genetically engineered in the lab to target a protein marker often present on sarcoma cells but not on healthy cells. The protein target is called NY-ESO-1. Once infused into a patient, the engineered T cells can hunt down and kill the cancer.
“For a long time we’ve thought that having a combination of CD8 and CD4 T cells working together will work much better than either alone,” said Pollack, an assistant member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch who specializes in sarcoma. “This study will be the first ever to combine these two cell types where each is engineered to go after its own natural kind of target.”
The three-year grant will help support a clinical trial, which will begin over the next year and run for two years after that.
There are more than 70 types of sarcomas, and an earlier study by Pollack and his collaborators revealed that the most common four have different patterns of immune responses. This suggested that immunotherapy approaches should vary depending on the type of sarcoma.
Pollack has seen promising results in another type of immunotherapy for sarcoma — a therapeutic vaccine. And he has ongoing clinical trials that combine chemotherapies and checkpoint inhibitors, an immunotherapy that blocks the immune system’s braking system and allows it to fight cancer better.
Marking his progress advancing treatments for sarcoma, Pollack also recently received the 2017 Sig Kohl Legacy Award from the Northwest Sarcoma Foundation, which supports sarcoma patients through financial-assistance grants, social support and education.
— Molly McElroy | Fred Hutch News Service
A new exhibit at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center includes a display dedicated to the discovery of the genes and cells responsible for odor detection, research that was conducted by Fred Hutch neurobiologist Dr. Linda Buck. In 2004, Buck and Columbia University’s Dr. Richard Axel received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work uncovering the genes and neurons that underlie our sense of smell.
The exhibit, which opened in September and runs through March 2018, is titled “Memory: Fragrant Flashbacks” and is the last in a four-part series on the science of memory. The current exhibit examines how smell influences our memory and includes a hands-on “smell synthesizer” that mixes 19 different smell molecules to create more than half a million unique odors.
Buck’s discoveries tie into that type of odor combination: After her work uncovering the genes responsible for odor detection, known as odorant receptors, she went on to conduct research showing that those receptors combine in “codes” to allow humans to distinguish a vast number of odor chemicals as having different smells. The Pacific Science Center display outlines how two closely related molecules can be perceived as very different scents by activating different but overlapping sets of odorant receptors in our noses.
— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service
Dr. Polly Newcomb, a cancer epidemiologist at Fred Hutch, has been elected to membership of the American Epidemiological Society. An honorary society founded in 1927, AES is the oldest epidemiology organization in the U.S.
Newcomb, a member of the Hutch's Public Health Sciences Division, joined the center in 1995. From 2002 to early 2016, she served as head of Fred Hutch's Cancer Prevention Program, the first such National Cancer Institute–funded program in the U.S.
Her research focuses on identifying modifiable risk factors for common cancers — colorectal, breast and endometrial — and identifying populations at risk through the intersection of genetic and environmental factors. Since many cancer risk factors appear to have only modest magnitudes of effect, she is particularly interested in more precisely defining susceptible individuals through genes, epigenetic changes or personal characteristics, such as body size or lifestyle factors — from alcohol to aspirin use — to help direct cancer prevention research.
Her other research interests include the detection of cancer at its earliest, most treatable stages. This includes evaluating the effectiveness of established cancer screening technologies, such as sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer detection, as well as novel biomarkers for noninvasive cancer detection.
Before joining the Hutch, Newcomb was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and from 1992 to 1995 served as head of the Cancer Control Program at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center. Despite her family’s move to Seattle many years ago, she maintains an active role at the university’s cancer center as a senior scientist, with many projects still ongoing.
Newcomb has published more than 400 research papers supported by $54 million in continued grant support over the past 25 years. She is former editor of the American Journal of Epidemiology and is past president of the American Society of Preventive Oncology.
She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in epidemiology from the University of Washington and, from 2014-2015, was a Fulbright Scholar at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she studied the impact of cadmium and other heavy metal exposures on human health.
— Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service