Spring training is just around the corner, but Seattle Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger and his wife, Amanda, took some time off last week for an off-season, Friday afternoon tour of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — to the delight of many a star-struck scientist.
The 28-year-old slugger will start his third year with the Mariners, returning as an American League All-Star who hit .285 and drove in 93 runs last year, while dazzling local fans with a year of spectacular defensive plays. He ended the season rated by MLB Network as the fourth best right fielder in the major leagues.
“You really do have a really good arm,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, president, and director of Fred Hutch, as he chatted with Haniger on the Seattle campus.
Gilliland met the couple at the end of their two-hour tour. It had been a crash course in cancer research where they practiced pipetting simulated DNA into tiny laboratory vials, learned about advanced research in lung cancer, and visited a robot that can carry out 1,600 tests for potential cancer drugs every day.
Gilliland also wanted to thank Haniger and his wife personally for their support. The rising superstar outfielder volunteered last year to record a Fred Hutch radio spot and helped in a fundraising promotion. That opportunity to ‘Meet Mitch’ during batting practice quickly raised $34,000 for Hutch research.
“Having somebody of your stature say, ‘This matters to me,’ makes a huge difference,” Gilliland said.
The Hanigers both grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, a technology center that shares much in common with Seattle’s burgeoning high-tech economy.
“It is awesome to be a partner and try to support Fred Hutch,” Haniger said. “Everybody here is trying to find a cure. That’s the main goal, so it’s pretty amazing to see what goes on behind the scenes.
“We learned a bunch today, and now I have to go home and have Amanda explain it to me,” joked Haniger, whose wife holds a master’s degree in education. She taught elementary school in Milpitas, California, near to where they first met and became high school sweethearts.
Their tour began with a visit to the laboratory of lung cancer researcher Dr. McGarry Houghton, who pulled a cover off a powerful microscope and explained how the images of a lung tumor are now conveyed directly to a flat panel screen.
“This technology is two years old,” Houghton said, pointing to the screen. “We used to have two colors, now we have six. We want to know how these cells, and these cells, and these cells interact with each other.”
He showed tumor cells lit up as white spots, cancer-fighting immune cells in blue or purple. The researcher explained that he is working on a method to cause neutrophils, a class of immune cells that normally attack bacteria, to home in on lung cancer cells.
Next the couple visited the laboratory of Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb — a blood stem cell researcher and Mariners season ticket holder. She quickly had the visitors don safety glasses and gloves to pipette droplets of jellied dyes simulating DNA, using materials she uses to train student interns.
Torok-Storb pointed proudly to a photograph of a reunion of many of the 169 kids who graduated from the Hutch’s Summer High School Internship Program, which seeks out promising students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in health sciences.
“What we try to do is make them competitive with kids who are privileged. We have them at community colleges, and we have them at Harvard and Stanford,” Torok-Storb said.
The final swing of their tour took the Hanigers to the laboratory of pediatric brain cancer researcher Dr. Jim Olson. He showed how his team is using a custom-made robot to screen thousands of tiny proteins, called optides, for potential as cancer drugs.
He also described brainstem glioma, a particularly difficult to treat cancer that has been invariably fatal. “What I really want to do before I retire is to be able to walk up to those patients’ family members and say, ‘There is a chance,’” he said.
The couple head for Arizona in two weeks for the start of spring training. But before they left Fred Hutch, they walked through the Visitor Center, where patients, researchers, and their families have posted hundreds of selfies with heartfelt written wishes and messages of support.
Amanda and Mitch insisted on writing one of their own. Below their photo, Mitch wrote, “I lost my grandfather to lung cancer in 2010. We are so blessed to team up with Fred Hutch in hopes to cure cancer.”
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.