Good News: Dr. Sue Biggins named a 2017 ASCB fellow

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Dr. Sue Biggins
Dr. Sue Biggins is associate director of the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch. Photo by Ron Wurzer for HHMI

Dr. Sue Biggins named a 2017 ASCB fellow

The American Society for Cell Biology has named Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Sue Biggins as a fellow in the second year of its Fellows award program. Fellows awards are meant to honor scientists who have made lifetime achievements in the field of cell biology and have contributed significantly to the ASCB.

Biggins, who is also associate director of the Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division, studies the molecules of cell division — specifically the kinetochore, a large protein complex that mediates how chromosomes segregate correctly to each of two daughter cells during division. Over a decade ago, Biggins led the team which, for the first time, isolated the kinetochore from live yeast cells to study its function in test tubes. 

That accomplishment allowed Biggins’ laboratory team to make further discoveries about how the kinetochore works, including the perhaps counterintuitive finding that the protein complexes rely on tension to do their jobs correctly. Kinetochores are attached to other components of the cell on either side; on the inside, to chromosomes, and on the outside, to the protein tubes known as microtubules that guide chromosomes to the daughter cells as the cell divides in two. Her team found that tension helps the kinetochore stay attached to the microtubule while it moves into the daughter cell.

Biggins has been a member of the ASCB since 1997. The society has a lot of different activities, but Biggins most appreciates its efforts in public policy, she said. ASCB was among the first professional scientific societies to do advocacy work with the U.S. government, Biggins said, and she’s enjoyed participating in some of those efforts.

“I am really honored to be among a group of cell biologists whose work I greatly admire as well as part of such a progressive organization,” Biggins said. “The ASCB really makes a difference for science in the U.S. both by facilitating interactions between cell biologists and by helping the public understand the importance of science.”

— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Taran Gujral
Dr. Taran Gujral is an assistant member of the Human Biology Division at the Hutch. Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Taran Gujral receives grant from American Lung Association

The American Lung Association has awarded a $200,000 research grant to Dr. Taran Gujral of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, whose work focuses on diagnosing gene mutations in cancer patients to inform effective treatment plans.

Gujral, an assistant member of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutch, will use the two-year grant to develop more precise, individualized treatment options for lung cancer.

Most recently he has been studying gene mutations in thyroid and pancreatic cancer patients. In a study published earlier this year, he observed that 20 different cell lines from pancreatic cancer patients all responded to the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine (Gemzar) in a laboratory setting, but most patients did not respond in the clinical setting. He went on to discover the reason why: tumor cells in some patients have a sensing mechanism that literally pumps the drug back out before it can be effective. Further, he discovered how cancer cells that carry a gene mutation known as STK11 overcame this sensing mechanism and were more responsive to the drug.

STK11 is the second-most-frequently occurring mutation in non-small cell lung cancer, which makes up 80 percent of lung cancer cases. Knowing that gemcitabine is already approved for therapy in patients with lung cancer, Gujral realized that further research could have imminent lifesaving impact for those living with the disease.

Gujral’s long-term goal is to establish a Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical diagnostic test to identify patients who carry the STK11 mutation. Armed with this knowledge, doctors can make informed decisions about whether the patient will benefit from gemcitabine treatment, and thereby provide optimal treatment plans and eliminate unnecessary side effects.

Gujral also hypothesizes that he can change the mutated cell’s behavior, thereby increasing the ability of gemcitabine to stay within the cell long enough to be effective. Validating this hypothesis with a mouse study would provide a path for therapeutic options for patients with this lung cancer mutation.

“What drives me is making an impact in patients' lives,” Gujral said. “Research is a continuous and intense process, not a short-term outcome. We bear the responsibility of committing ourselves faithfully over the years to provide validated scientific insights and to address unmet medical needs. Doctors, patients and their caregivers should know that we are making progress, and the findings are going to be useful.”

Bev Stewart, senior vice president with the American Lung Association, Mountain Pacific Region, agrees. “We need more treatment options to fight lung cancer. Each lung cancer research project funded brings us closer to realizing our vision of a world free of lung disease. In speaking with Dr. Gujral about this project, I am reminded of the hope research grants us all and proud the American Lung Association is able to ensure such promising ideas are brought to light.”

— Adapted from an American Lung Association news release

Abraham Gutierrez
Abraham Gutierrez is a doctoral student in the Biggins Lab. Fred Hutch file photo

Fred Hutch/UW graduate student wins SACNAS presentation award

Abraham Gutierrez, a doctoral student in the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Molecular & Cellular Biology program, received an award for his oral research presentation at the 2017 National Diversity in STEM Conference held last month in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference was organized by The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, or SACNAS.

Gutierrez conducts his research in the lab of Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Sue Biggins and studies a component of the kinetochore, a large protein complex involved in cell division, known as Dam1. He went to the conference in large part to help recruit underrepresented minority students to his graduate program, but he was pleased to have the opportunity to present his research to the panel of scientist judges, he said.

Gutierrez was one of 117 graduate and undergraduate students honored at the conference.

“Through the Presentation Awards we proudly recognize and lift up the hard work and effort of students in their respective fields,” said SACNAS President Dr. Lino Gonzalez in a statement.

For Gutierrez, the award was validation of a skill he sees as essential in his career.

“Receiving the award means I was able to communicate my science well, and that’s one of the most important things about science,” he said. “The work that you do may be great, but if you can’t communicate it to people then you’re at a disadvantage.”

— Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

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