Researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will partner with the new Allen Institute for Immunology to chart the human immune system by harnessing big data and emerging technologies.
Fred Hutch is one of several external collaborators of the new institute, which was launched today at a press conference at the Seattle institute. Other partners are the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason in Seattle, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the University of Pennsylvania.
The organization’s ultimate goal is to improve human health by improving disease treatments based on the immune system. To that end, the teams will work to describe the immune system of healthy individuals and what goes astray in cancer and in autoimmunity, when the immune system either fails to eliminate tumor cells or attacks healthy tissues.
The Hutch will contribute expertise in cancer immunology and cancer immunotherapies, in which the immune system is harnessed to treat tumors. Initial efforts will focus on understanding the immune systems of patients with multiple myeloma, a common but currently incurable blood cancer, to improve immunotherapy strategies for this disease.
“Patients are all different. To be able to reveal the complexity of individual variation will really move the field forward” said Dr. Stan Riddell, an oncologist and immunotherapy researcher who directs the Hutch’s Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center and is one of the leaders of the new collaboration. “I’ve always been a translational immunologist. Here, the fact that we are studying patients with the goal of using the data to improve these new cancer immunotherapies — that’s special.”
Bone marrow transplantation as a curative therapy for blood cancers was pioneered at Fred Hutch. This Nobel Prize–winning therapy also paved the way for today’s immunotherapies when researchers found that part of the strategy’s lifesaving effects came from the anti-tumor capabilities of immune cells arising from donor bone marrow. Riddell and Hutch colleague Dr. Phil Greenberg, who is another of the new collaboration’s leaders, have both developed immunotherapies based on engineering T cells, a specialized type of immune cell, to attack tumor cells. Engineered T cells are showing early promise against multiple myeloma, and there is an opportunity to make important strides against the disease, Riddell said.
One proposed research collaboration between the institute and Riddell involves studying research specimens collected from patients with multiple myeloma who were treated using immunotherapy.
Improving patient care is one of the major goals of the scientists, who have jumped at the chance to work together to chart the complexity of the human immune system.
“We want to go beyond interesting correlations and descriptive work,” said Dr. Thomas F. Bumol, the executive director of the new institute. The Allen Institute for Immunology is committed “to do the hard work of piecing it together to get to mechanistic insights, an aha moment” that points a way forward toward improved patient care, he said.
Those involved are not afraid to set big goals. Riddell and Greenberg expect that the work will bring tangible benefits to patients, giving researchers information that will help them better match patients to treatment and make immunotherapies safer and more effective.
But to better understand how to improve immune-based treatments, we must better understand the immune system itself. Our immune systems have evolved to fight off germs that would otherwise kill us. Along the way, they also picked up the ability to fight off a threat that comes from within: cancer. But as finely tuned as our immune systems are, they can go awry by turning their weapons on our own tissues, as in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, or by missing abnormal cells that then grow into tumors.
But to truly understand what’s gone wrong in these cases, we need to know more about what occurs when everything’s going right, said Greenberg, who heads the Fred Hutch Program in Immunology.
“You can’t understand what’s really wrong with an immune system … unless you understand how that differs from the normal variations,” he said.
Researchers will compare different types of dysfunctional immune systems with each other and with the immune systems of healthy study participants. Initial projects will focus on three autoimmune diseases — rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease — as well as multiple myeloma and the skin cancer melanoma, in addition to the normal immune system.
One strength of the institute’s approach is that its scientists will study research volunteers over time.
“It’s not just a snapshot — we’ll be looking at patients’ immune systems over multiple years. The immune system is a dynamic system that can only be understood over time,” Bumol said.
And, comparing different types of disordered immune systems provides a rare opportunity for researchers in different fields to work together, Riddell said. It may be that insights into immune dysfunction in autoimmunity could lead to improvements in treatments for cancers or other diseases.
To capture the amount of variation within the human immune system will take many patients, many samples and many data points. The collaboration would not be possible without recent technological innovations, such as platforms that can analyze thousands of individual cells, whether from tumors or the noncancerous cells that interact with tumors. These technologies allow researchers to examine the cells and complex interactions of the immune system in unprecedented depth, Greenberg said.
But as the size of data sets grow, researchers must continually develop new methods and tools to make sense of the information they contain. Those involved expect that the new partnership will help spur continued methodological and technological advances.
“The Allen Institute is good at pushing technology further, pioneering better ways to generate and analyze data, especially at the single-cell level,” said Dr. Raphael Gottardo, a Hutch biostatistician, computational biologist and the third leader of the Hutch collaboration with the Allen Institute for Immunology. Gottardo directs the newly formed Fred Hutch Translational Data Science Integrated Research Center and holds the J. Orin Edson Endowed Chair for Cancer Research at the Hutch. The collaboration will give researchers the opportunity to pilot and establish new technologies that will improve their ability to gather and analyze large amounts of data, he said.
As lofty as the goals of the new initiative are — improving patient care, delving ever deeper into the mysteries of the immune system and pioneering technological innovations — the biggest successes may be those that have yet to be imagined, Riddell said.
“I think that some of the most extraordinary things that will come from this will be things that right now, we’re not thinking about,” he said.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.