Good News: NCI grants $2.4M to support Hutch science-education efforts

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Science Education Partnership teachers explore the contents of science kits for loan.
Science Education Partnership teachers explore the contents of science kits for loan this summer at the Hutch. From left to right: Deborah LaZerte, John F. Kennedy Memorial High School; Tara Maloney, Eastside Catholic School; Dawn Rubstello, Roosevelt High School; and Renee Agatsuma, Mount Rainier High School. Photo by Caren Brinkema / Fred Hutch

NCI grants $2.4M to support Hutch science-education efforts 

A new, five-year grant awarded to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Jeanne Chowning and Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb will “plug the gaps,” as Chowning put it, between the Hutch’s existing science education programs.

The award, termed “Pathways to Cancer Research,” is part of a National Cancer Institute effort to increase career interest in cancer research, especially among underrepresented minority groups or other students who have larger than usual barriers to becoming scientists. That national effort fit perfectly with the Hutch’s own emphasis on nurturing the next generation of researchers and increasing diversity among scientists, Chowning said.

Currently, Torok-Storb leads the Summer High School Internship Program, or SHIP. Select SHIP alums return to serve as lead interns for the program. Last year, she also piloted the Clinical Scholars Program for SHIP alums in partnership with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner.

Chowning directs the Science Education Partnership, or SEP, a training and mentoring program for middle- and high-school science teachers that also offers extensive resource support. Fred Hutch’s Drs. Julian Simon and Robert Bradley co-direct the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, or SURP. 

These programs have a broad reach already, but there is a gap in support between the SHIP programs and SURP, Torok-Storb said. The SURP program is designed specifically for students entering their last year of college. This new grant offers new, formalized programs for high school and college students earlier in their education.

For high school students, SEP will launch a new outreach program for 10th and 11th grade students called Pathways Research Explorers. Thirty high school students per year will get an introductory, two-week glimpse into cancer research and other biomedical sciences at the Hutch, which is designed to boost these students’ interest in scientific research and help them apply for competitive internship programs such as SHIP.

Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb and Jeanne Chowning
Grant recipients Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb and Jeanne Chowning Fred Hutch file photos

The new college internship program, Pathways Undergraduate Researchers, will start where SHIP leaves off, providing summer internships to 25 college students during their first three years of college. Each student will spend two consecutive summers working with a Fred Hutch mentor.

Torok-Storb and her colleagues see a number of high school students through SHIP who are interested in research careers but don’t have ongoing support or opportunities for lab experience as they go into college, she said. She hopes this new program will help keep them engaged with science and research early in college. The new internships will start next summer.

“We have some of the undergraduates already on board, actually,” Torok-Storb said. “They’ve been waiting in the wings to do this.”

The new funding also offers science teachers participating in SEP a chance to extend their research training through a new program called the Hutch Fellowship for Excellence in STEM Teaching. Currently, the SEP program includes a five-day research project conducted in a Fred Hutch laboratory with a scientist mentor. The new grant will allow four SEP participants interested in gaining more research experience to spend two summers at the Hutch in an intensive fellowship program. 

The grant is a significant boost to the Hutch’s existing education programs, Chowning said. With long-running programs already in place, they can build more with less.

“It’s a one-plus-one-is-three kind of thing. Because we have strong programs already established, we’re able to readily build something new that’s really bigger,” Chowning said.

Torok-Storb added that the Hutch’s support made a huge difference in their success receiving this grant: “The grant awards for these programs are made possible by the commitment of our exceptional faculty and the continued institutional support for increasing diversity and inclusion at Fred Hutch,” she said.

— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Kevin Cheung
Dr. Kevin Cheung Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Kevin Cheung named a 2017 V Foundation Scholar

The V Foundation for Cancer Research has awarded Dr. Kevin Cheung a 2017 V Scholar Grant to study how breast cancer cells co-opt intercellular signaling to metastasize, or spread, efficiently as tumor cell clusters. V Scholar Grants are designed to help early investigators like Cheung pursue high-risk, high-reward ideas.

“I’m thrilled to receive this award,” said the Fred Hutch translational researcher. “Jimmy V’s message to never give up has inspired many and this grant will allow us to take our ideas to the next level,” Cheung said, referring to V Foundation founder Jim Valvano, a legendary basketball player, coach, and broadcaster whose mission was “to achieve victory over cancer.” Valvano died of adenocarcinoma, a type of glandular cancer, in 1993.

Cheung will use the two-year, $200,000 award to shed light on a little-studied process of metastasis in which cancer cells migrate as clusters, enabling them to aggressively metastasize and resist cancer therapy. He believes this work will pave the way for new strategies to treat and prevent metastatic breast cancer.

Metastasis — the spread of cancer beyond the breast to other organs such as the lungs, liver, bones, and brain — is terminal and is responsible for most breast cancer deaths. Currently, around 40,000 women die of metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. each year, a statistic that has remained unchanged for decades.

Cheung and colleagues will take advantage of a technology they invented to create “mini-tumors,” or organoids, to define the molecular underpinnings of tumor cell-cluster signaling. Cheung believes that studying these signals — how they are transmitted and their consequences — could uncover key vulnerabilities needed to disrupt and destroy clusters of tumor cells.

“The overall goal of this project is to identify how signaling in tumor cell clusters enables metastatic breast cancers to grow and survive,” he said. “Studying these key metastasis-specific signaling pathways will, in the long-term, help us identify women at high risk of recurrence and metastasis and guide the development of new therapies to improve the long-term survival of women with metastatic disease. In the medium-term, biomarkers identified in this study, if validated in additional cohorts, could help patients and physicians better assess the risk of recurrence and decide optimal therapy.”

An assistant member of the Public Health Sciences and Human Biology divisions at Fred Hutch and a practicing breast cancer oncologist at SCCA, Cheung came to Fred Hutch in 2015. This is his first award from the V Foundation.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research grant program, founded in 1993, supports cancer research projects and related programs that are designed to change the course of cancer.

“We support projects that improve the lives of people with cancer, research that provides critical data that enhances understanding of the causes, treatment, and cure of cancers, and training for promising individuals dedicated to cancer prevention, research and/or patient care,” said V Foundation Chief Financial and Administrative Officer Jefferson Parker in a letter.

— Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

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