10 highlights of Fred Hutch science in 2017

A look back at notable discoveries in cancer immunotherapy, HIV prevention and more

As we flip the calendar over to 2018, let’s take a look back at 10 highlights from Fred Hutch research in 2017:

1. New insights could make CAR T-cell therapy safer

photo of cameron turtle in the lab
Dr. Cameron Turtle Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A kind of cancer immunotherapy called CAR T-cell therapy grabbed headlines in 2017, particularly when the FDA approved the first two products this fall. The promising therapies reprogram immune cells to eliminate certain blood cancers but can cause serious side effects in some patients. To help make the approach safer, Hutch researchers led by Dr. Cameron Turtle are studying those effects in unprecedented detail. The team provided the most comprehensive data yet on cytokine release syndrome, neurological toxicities and infections after infusion of a CAR T-cell product, laying the groundwork for reducing the risk of the most severe toxic effects. Read more at the links above.

graphic illustration of an arrow hitting a very small target, held by a person's hand over the backdrop of a large target with numerous arrows in it
Research zoomed in on a specific group of patients who could benefit from a leukemia drug that was pulled from the market in 2009. Illustration by Kim Carney / Fred Hutch

2. Bringing a leukemia treatment back to life

New research breathed life back into a leukemia drug originally developed at Fred Hutch. Hailed in 2000 as the first approved “magic bullet” drug, gemtuzumab ozogamicin (Mylotarg) was later pulled off the market due to concerns about safety and effectiveness. In June, Dr. Soheil Meshinchi and collaborators reported that a single letter change in patients’ DNA code makes a big difference in how they respond to the drug. Based on the results of multiple studies, Mylotarg was restored to the market in September, and researchers worldwide are pursuing a precision-medicine approach — targeting the drug to patients most likely to benefit — based on Meshinchi and colleagues’ results. Read more.

3. Immunotherapy advances for Merkel cell carcinoma patients

photo of Kelly Paulson in the lab, a microscope in the background
Dr. Kelly Paulson Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

This year brought a series of milestones in immunotherapy for Merkel cell carcinoma — a rare and deadly skin cancer — by Drs. Paul Nghiem, Kelly Paulson and colleagues:

Read more at the links above.

headshot of jason bielas in the lab
Dr. Jason Bielas Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

4. Capturing information from thousands of cells at once

Dr. Jason Bielas and biotech collaborators developed a new technology that reveals what genes are turned on — or expressed — in tens of thousands of cells at once. As the team demonstrated in their January paper, scientists can use the technology to see huge amounts of data from a single cell and large-scale data patterns across cells, all in a single experiment. Read more.

5. A banner year for the launch of new HIV vaccine trials

photo of Larry Corey
Dr. Larry Corey Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented time in HIV vaccine research,” said Dr. Larry Corey, who leads the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Headquartered at Fred Hutch, HVTN is the largest global network developing AIDS vaccines. This year, the network launched a new vaccine trial, close on the heels of three others begun in 2016. The four ongoing trials will together enroll 12,200 volunteers worldwide to test promising approaches for preventing HIV infection. Read more.

6. Aspirin and its cousins linked to longer survival after colorectal cancer, for some

photograph of aspirin pills
Tumor genetics changes the link between aspirin and colon cancer survival. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

This year, Dr. Polly Newcomb and her team found that the link between regular use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, and increased survival after colorectal cancer depends on tumor genetics. Among the one in three colorectal cancer patients whose tumors carry a mutation in a gene called KRAS, there was no survival advantage from the drugs. However, among the two-thirds with a normal copy of KRAS, regular use of such drugs was linked to a 40 percent increase in five-year survival. Read more.

7. Mapping where proteins bind to DNA for the Human Cell Atlas

photo of Dr. Steve Henikoff talking to a man (who is partially off-camera) while gesturing at a chalkboard in a hallway
Dr. Steven Henikoff Photo by Susie Fitzhugh for Fred Hutch

Dr. Steven Henikoff and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Peter Skene created a new technique, dubbed CUT&RUN, to locate where certain proteins bind to DNA across the human genome. Now, their goal is to scale it up for use by the Human Cell Atlas, which hopes to use such advances to build a more complete picture of all human cells in their healthy state. That will help researchers better understand how and why cells change when disease occurs. Read more.

8. A sharper focus on metastatic breast cancer

Photo of Bridgette Hempstead
Metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate Bridgette Hempstead. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Using a “mathematical recipe” to solve a longstanding puzzle, researchers at Fred Hutch and the National Cancer Institute have come up with the first reliable estimate of the number of women living with metastatic breast cancer. Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Ruth Etzioni co-authored the May study, which estimated 155,000 women are living with metastatic breast cancer, about one-third higher than previously thought. In October, Etzioni was awarded a five-year grant to develop a new approach to identifying cancer recurrence, which is essential to understanding the true burden of stage 4 disease. Read more.

9. Innovative biomaterials designed to fight cancer

Graphic illustration of a cross section of one of Stephan's nanoparticles, showing a yellow and gray coat, and orange and white genetic material inside
A cross-section of the nanoparticle designed by Dr. Matthias Stephan and his team, displaying the T cell–programming genes packaged inside. Illustration by Cognition Studios

Dr. Matthias Stephan and colleagues are developing new techniques to rewire the body’s own immune cells using tiny, dissolving particles or sponges. In research published in April and August, the researchers used nanoparticles in mice to reprogram a class of immune cells which then killed leukemia cells and “remembered” their target long after the particles disappeared. And another preclinical study published in April demonstrated the potential of the team’s immunotherapy-infused sponges to shrink tumors and prolong survival after being implanted on mouse tumors. Read more in the links above.

10. Generous community support accelerates Hutch research

Photo of two people writing names with chalk on a board with many other names already filled in.
"I ride for: _." Names filled up a dedication board at Obliteride's kickoff party in 2017.

Support from the community fuels research advances like these. It also helps launch new research initiatives like Fred Hutch’s Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center, ensuring even more discoveries in the future. In 2017, our community rallied in a big way:

Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. 

Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.

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