Good News: Fred Hutch joins coalition that seeks to increase transparency on life science career prospects

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Dr. David MacPherson
Dr. David MacPherson is one of two Hutch researchers who have received Evergreen Fund grants for the second consecutive year; the other is Dr. Taran Gujral. Both are based in the Human Biology Division. Fred Hutch file photo

Nine Fred Hutch scientists win Evergreen Fund grants to promote commercialization of research

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has announced awards totaling $1 million to nine of its scientists through the Evergreen Fund, a unique grant program that supports homegrown research projects deemed attractive to potential commercial partners.

This is the second year of Evergreen Fund awards. Fred Hutch’s Business Development & Strategy office created the program in 2016 to encourage scientists to pursue creative ideas with commercial appeal. Roughly $1 million in awards are distributed each year. The ultimate goal is to speed research from the bench to the bedside by advancing discoveries along a milestone-driven path that better positions the foundational science for licensing or venture funding. 

Hilary Hehman, director of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances within Business Development & Strategy, said the program highlights the Hutch’s commitment to funding bold innovations that demonstrate commercial potential.

“We are committed to forging partnerships with industry and venture firms as a means of getting our science to the patient as quickly as possible,' she said.

The Evergreen Fund this year distributed four grants of $50,000 each for Pilot Awards, which are designed to give “big and bold ideas with commercial application” that need a quick infusion of funds to assess their full potential over a six-month period. Another five winners received between $100,000 and $200,000 in “Beyond Pilot” grants to accelerate their research over a two-year period. The goal is to help researchers who already have promising data and a commercial path forward but need further development to attract external financial support.

Among the awardees is Dr. David MacPherson, who will use a Beyond Pilot grant to explore new ways to treat small cell lung cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of lung cancer. It is still treated with chemotherapy agents developed 40 years ago. The project will focus first on a new target, a kind of Achilles’ heel gene called NEDD8, without which small cell lung cancer cells cannot survive. It is considered a “druggable target” because the gene’s activity can be blocked by an existing drug being tested in clinical trials for other cancers.

MacPherson’s team discovered the vulnerability of NEDD8 during a series of experiments last year supported by a $50,000 Evergreen Fund Pilot Award. “Now we are going to go a lot deeper, looking at drug combinations and working to find other targets,” MacPherson said.

“He is a great example of how this should work,” said Hehman. “The fund is meant to allow the principal investigators to complete experiments that validate their scientific hypotheses, making the technologies less risky for external partners to consider for additional investment."

MacPherson is one of two Hutch researchers who have received Evergreen Fund grants for the second consecutive year; the other is Dr. Taran Gujral. Both are based in the Human Biology Division. (More about Gujral's grant below.)

Other winners of Beyond Pilot project grants this year

  • Dr. Jennifer Adair — Her lab is developing a way to deliver therapeutic genes for blood cell gene therapy without using viruses. In gene therapy, a patient’s own cells are genetically modified to treat their disease. Currently, viruses are used to transport these genetic instructions. The process is slow, however, and viruses are hard to grow at the industrial scale needed to treat large numbers of people. Adair’s lab is developing gold-coated nanoparticles to deliver genetic material to a favored place in blood cell genomes called “a genomic safe harbor” as a potential treatment for several different diseases.
  • Dr. Aude Chapuis — She will use her grant to help develop a “gene therapy toolkit” for controlling viral infections in patients whose immune systems are compromised during blood stem cell transplantation therapies. The goal is to use the expertise developed in engineering T cells to recognize cancer cells to have them also target cells infected by the five most common viruses that threaten transplant patients. The team also plans to test a strategy to engineer these therapeutic T cells in less than a week to control viral reactivation or infections, thereby saving more lives.
  • Dr. Damian Green — He is developing a bispecific antibody, an engineered immune protein that has two different arms. One arm is designed to seek out and bind to the surface of multiple myeloma or lymphoma blood cells; the other captures a radioactive drug in the bloodstream and very selectively concentrates the radiation’s killing power on the cancer cells that have been grabbed by the tumor-binding arm. Having tested one bispecific antibody successfully in laboratory models, he will engineer another bispecific antibody to grab a different site on the target cell surface and kill them in the same way. His lab will then test these two competing antibody designs in disease models to see which is superior.
  • Dr. Scott Ramsey — His team at the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research or HICOR,  will partner with the Hutch Data Commonwealth to add to the capabilities of its HICOR IQ program, a software product developed for doctors, hospitals, and insurers to understand trends in the patterns of cancer care and costs. HICOR IQ draws data from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER cancer registry and health insurance records to give a comprehensive, population-wide picture of cancer care in Washington state. The goal is to make it easier to find ways to improve use of recommended cancer care, and to lower costs to patients and the health care system.

Recipients of the four Evergreen Fund Pilot Awards

  • Dr. Jarrod Dudakov — He is working on techniques to improve the isolation of blood stem cells prior to transplant, and he is focused on doing so by targeting a protein called LHCGR, which is found only on the most primitive, least differentiated blood stem cells. This novel marker might serve to identify and deplete a cancer patient’s own population of blood stem cells prior to transplantation without the use of toxic doses of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • Dr. Taran Gujral — His team will tap the artificial intelligence concept of machine learning to develop a faster, more effective way to test drugs as potential treatments for different cancers. His “proof of concept” proposal is to gather data from tissue slices exposed to drug candidates and use a “deep learning” computer algorithm to analyze responses. The goal is to screen thousands of drugs and drug combinations to spot potentially effective ones with the same accuracy of current methods that are slower and depend on preclinical models.
  • Dr. Nina Salama — Salama, who holds the Dr. Penny Petersen Memorial Chair for Lymphoma Research, is developing a test to detect antibiotic-resistance genes in H. pylori bacteria, which can cause stomach cancer. Current screens require growing the bacteria in a dish and testing their response to antibiotics. Results can take weeks. Her project will involve screening for H. pylori resistance genes taken from stomach samples collected during endoscopy or, noninvasively, from stool samples. These methods can find those genes in just one day. Her team will expand the technique for use with several commonly used antibiotics, potentially allowing doctors to quickly tailor treatment to the specific bacterial population infecting the patient.
  • Dr. Reza Shahbazi.  is developing techniques for isolating key elements of blood stem cell populations used in transplants. A long-term goal in the field is to find a single common marker on the surface of blood stem cells to make them easier to isolate from other blood cells. In prior Fred Hutch research, three protein markers were found to identify the most valuable cells for transplants, including blood stem cells. His pilot project will see if blood stem cells can be more precisely isolated using small targeting molecules called aptamers, which would improve the purity and reduce the cost of collecting them for transplant.

— Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service 

Dr. Gary Gilliland
“We are proud to be the first independent research institute to join this coalition dedicated to helping early-career scientists better plan for their futures,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch president and director, of the new Coalition for Next Generation Life Science. Fred Hutch file photo

Fred Hutch joins coalition that seeks to increase transparency on life science career prospects 

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and nine U.S. research universities today announced plans to give would-be life scientists clear, standardized data on graduate school admissions, postdoctoral fellowships, education and training opportunities, and career prospects.

The institutions formed the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science in response to the exclusive focus of many new Ph.D. recipients and postdocs on a limited number of traditional faculty positions and to the lack of good marketplace information on training and career options for talented life scientists.

“We are proud to be the first independent research institute to join this coalition dedicated to helping early-career scientists better plan for their futures,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch president and director. “Our shared commitment to providing training and employability data will improve how the next generation of researchers aligns their talents with the best opportunities. Such a step is essential if we are to advance scientific knowledge and to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.”

The presidents and chancellors of the founding institutions announced the initiative in a joint online article that will be published Dec. 15 in the journal Science. They said they would begin posting informative new standardized data on institutional websites in February and add additional categories of information over the next 18 months.

“In the absence of such information, students are prevented from making informed choices about their pre- and postdoctoral training activities, and universities [are prevented] from preparing trainees for a full range of careers,” the presidents and chancellors wrote in the Science article.

The article cited studies showing that only about 10 percent of U.S. biomedical scientists land tenure-track faculty positions at U.S. institutions within five years of their Ph.D. graduation. Among the constraints on the academic job market, the article said, has been a nearly 20 percent decline in inflation-adjusted federal research funding from 2003 to 2016. That decline limits hiring by universities and other nonprofit research institutions that receive federal research support.

The coalition members will issue statistical reports with information on:

  • Admission to and enrollment in doctoral programs in the life sciences
  • The median time spent in graduate school before earning a doctorate
  • The demographics of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows by gender, underrepresented minority status and citizenship status
  • The median time spent in postdoctoral fellowships (the apprenticeships many scientists serve immediately after graduate school but before landing a permanent position) 
  • The jobs held by an institution’s former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows

The dearth of faculty positions in the life sciences is no secret and many postdoctoral trainees are aware of the odds against them when they search for traditional university jobs, the Science article stated. The authors wrote, however, that students and trainees would benefit from appreciating the odds much sooner. They also would be helped by knowing more about the range of options for trained life scientists, such as careers in industry, entrepreneurship, government and science communication.

“The majority of trainees will eventually choose to pursue those careers, but only after having made irreversible investments in what is often more than a decade in training for academic jobs that do not exist,” the presidents and chancellors wrote. “And at least some of this training activity may be unnecessary for their eventual career choices.”

Some relevant data are available now, but for a small number of institutions and in formats that do not allow for easy comparison. Comprehensive data in a form standardized across institutions should be a major help, the presidents and chancellors wrote.

“Open data will allow students and postdoctoral fellows to understand fully the range of likely outcomes of their eventual training and career choices,” they wrote. “It will help universities to better target their programs to actual career outcomes. … And it can help to hold universities and other research institutions to account for their success in training and placing graduate students.

“Each of these measures,” the co-authors wrote, “is directed at the cardinal goal of making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane.”

Each coalition member, the writers said, has also agreed to help graduate students and fellows better explore alternative career paths, improve mentoring, and work to improve diversity in the life sciences workforce. They said they hope other institutions will join the original 10 in the movement for transparency in biomedical career data.

The presidents and chancellors said they chose to begin their transparency initiative with life science because of considerable national concern about the field. They added, however, that “the logic of our initiative extends to other scholarly disciplines.” The coalition’s work could extend in the future to graduate education and training in the natural and physical sciences, engineering, the social sciences and the humanities.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and an anonymous donor are helping to fund the coalition, which is co-led by Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, dean of the Graduate Division and vice chancellor for Student Academic Affairs at the University of California, San Francisco; and Dr. Peter Espenshade, associate dean for Graduate Biomedical Education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In addition to Fred Hutch, UCSF and Johns Hopkins, other institutions in the coalition are Cornell University, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin.

— Based on a Johns Hopkins University news release

Dr. Brandon Hadland
Dr. Brandon Hadland Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Brandon Hadland wins award to advance research on blood stem cell development

Dr. Brandon Hadland, a junior researcher at Fred Hutch, recently received a Scholar Award from the American Society of Hematology. The $150,000, two-year award will advance Hadland’s research to understand the factors during development that control the early formation of the stem cells that give rise to blood and immune cells.

His ultimate goal is to use this understanding to develop a system for generating and cultivating blood stem cells in the lab, providing an invaluable resource for research on diseases that affect the blood and immune system and for studies of novel treatments, such as gene editing, to cure them.

Hadland’s project will harness new technologies for simultaneously analyzing the patterns of gene activation in multiple cells and identifying the interactions between them. By looking at these patterns and interactions among cells in very early development, he hopes to identify the specific signals that trigger the formation of blood stem cells.

The ASH Scholar Awards provide financial support to junior researchers that helps bridge them into careers as independent investigators. Hadland was one of 31 researchers across the country who won a Scholar Award this year from the society. He is a research associate in the lab of Dr. Irwin Bernstein of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division.

ASH Scholar Awards are funded by the ASH Foundation as well as from corporate sponsors, individual donors and funds committed by ASH.

— Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

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