Washington’s Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment awards $1.5M to 3 Fred Hutch researchers

Scientists will use funds to expand research in graft-vs.-host disease, chemoprevention and cancer immunology
Drs. Evan Newell, Geoffrey Hill and Thomas Kensler
Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment recipients Drs. Evan Newell, Geoffrey Hill and Thomas Kensler, all of whom were recruited recently to Fred Hutch. Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Three researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently were awarded a total of $1.5 million from the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment, a public-private partnership that supports cancer research in Washington. Until recently, the fund was known as the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment (CARE) Fund.

The awardees, all recent recruits to Fred Hutch, each of whom received individual grants of $500,000, are:

  • Dr. Geoffrey Hill, a renowned bone marrow transplantation physician-scientist whose research focuses on better understanding of a transplantation side effect called graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD.
  • Dr. Thomas Kensler, an expert in carcinogenesis and chemoprevention whose laboratory focuses on using chemoprevention to establish safe, economical, and effective means for reducing cancer risks related to unavoidable environmental exposures.
  • Dr. Evan Newell, a leading immunologist whose research focuses on using new technologies for identifying specific, accurate biomarkers of human health and disease, including cancer.

Hill: Optimizing new approaches to prevent GVHD

Hill, who holds the José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research, recently was recruited from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia to lead Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation at Fred Hutch. He plans to use the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment funds to undertake preclinical studies aimed at optimizing new approaches to prevent GVHD by using sophisticated immunological analyses that were not previously possible.

“GVHD is the major limitation of transplantation and is responsible for significant morbidity and mortality,” Hill said. “[This research] allows us to develop ways to improve transplant outcomes for our patients.” Hill hopes his research will continue to allow him to translate findings into clinical trials.

Kensler: A focus on cancer prevention using foods or medications

Kensler was recruited recently from the University of Pittsburgh to join the Public Health Sciences Division faculty at Fred Hutch. Focusing on cancer prevention, the Kensler Lab strives to decrease cancer risks associated with unavoidable exposures to environmental carcinogens by chemoprevention — the use of foods or medications to intercept cancer at its earliest stages of development in order to lower the risk of disease.

“Primary and secondary approaches to prevention already have many successes,” Kensler said. “Better implementation of what we know and what we still need to learn will drive down the global burden of cancer. We see chemoprevention as one of the important tools for cancer risk reduction.”

With the grant, Kensler hopes to expand his workforce by hiring one or two younger associates to enable his team to move more quickly and nimbly toward targeting a major cellular defense pathway, NRF2. “Being funded by the public to do science is a privilege,” Kensler said.  “We are driven by the quest for discovery and the translation of new knowledge to the common good.”

Newell: Characterizing antigen-specific T-cell responses to cancer

Newell, also on the quest for new discovery, plans to use the grant funds to pursue his work in human T-cell immunology.  Specifically, he will test a range of new ideas regarding in-depth characterization of antigen usage by T-cell populations in cancer. “All immune responses are triggered by T cells of the immune system recognizing something as foreign, abnormal, or potentially dangerous. In each case and in the case of cancer, T cells can sense these changes through their ability to detect various types of antigens that are produced by cancer cells,” said Newell, who was recruited recently from the Singapore Immunology Network to join Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division.  Newell believes the mechanisms of avoidance could be different for each type of antigen. He plans to develop better methods for characterizing antigen-specific T-cell responses to test hypotheses like this.

In addition to better understanding the T-cell repertoire in terms of the range of antigens that can be recognized, Newell hopes to greatly increase the number of useful T-cell antigens that can be studied in human cancer. “As an immunologist it has been extremely exciting to see the impact of our field on medicine in recent years.  We can see now that the fundamentals of immunology can lead to major changes in the way that we manage human disease,” he said. “So, now we feel a duty to see how much further we can go toward reducing burden of disease across the world.”

The $1.5 million in awards of public funds to support recruitment and start-up packages for Hill, Kensler, and Newell will be matched by more than $10 million in non-state funds committed by Fred Hutch.

Previous Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment awardees from Fred Hutch include Dr. Heather Greenlee, a doctor of naturopathic medicine and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance; Dr. Mark Headley, an immunologist whose research focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular dynamics behind tumor metastasis, in particular lung metastasis; and Dr. Lev Silberstein, a clinical researcher who looks at the clinical problems posed by bone marrow failure, myelodysplasia, and related syndromes.

About the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment

The establishment and funding of the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment shows Washington state’s commitment to investing in cancer research.  Authorized by Senate Bill 6096 and signed into law in 2015, the law (Chapter 43.348 RCW) enables the state to provide up to $10 million annually for 10 years to exclusively fund cancer research in Washington state. Built on a public-private partnership model, the fund incentivizes additional investment by requiring private or other non-state resources to match state funding. The Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment has already funded seven world-class cancer researchers and is projected to fund a total 15 Distinguished Researchers and three Breakthrough Research Projects by 2020.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Jill Christensen, is a former media relations specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and is a graduate of the University of Washington with a B.A. in journalism and psychology. Her experience has led her to pursue a career at the Hutch, combining her passion for health and science with her communication skills.

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