Seattle mayor and melanoma survivor Jenny Durkan visits Fred Hutch

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Seattle mayor and recent melanoma survivor Jenny Durkan visits Fred Hutch

Mayor shares personal story as Hutch scientists outline the future of cancer therapy

March 13, 2019
Dr. Jen Adair and Mayor Jenny Durkan

Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Jen Adair, in gray, speaks with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan about a machine she developed that enables "gene therapy in a box." The mayor toured Adair's lab during a visit to the Hutch Wednesday.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Hope and fear.

Shortly after she was diagnosed with melanoma in January, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan found herself in a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance waiting room. She anxiously glanced around. Her fellow patients spanned all ages and spoke multiple languages, but they all had the same look in their eyes: a mixture of hope and fear.

On Wednesday, March 13, Durkan visited Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to learn about advancements that could help tip the scales toward hope.

“It’s so important to show the research underway into treatments and prevention, because they really do raise hope,” said Durkan, who lost her mother and oldest brother to cancer. “For me, one of the untold stories is the role Fred Hutch and other institutions in Seattle play in designing the treatments of the future. The level of discovery here is astonishing.”

Today, Durkan describes herself as cancer-free. She underwent surgery to remove a melanoma tumor on her knee in January, amidst snowstorms and fears of Viadoom gridlock.

But she knows she was fortunate to catch her cancer early, to live in a city with a comprehensive cancer center, and to have good health insurance. So, she came to Fred Hutch with two questions: What are you doing to bring advancements in screening, treatment and prevention to everyone, and what can the city do to help?

The future of cancer therapy

Durkan was welcomed by Dr. Nancy Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and the president and executive director of SCCA. Davidson led a roundtable discussion with Durkan and several leading Hutch scientists.

“One in three people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer,” Davidson noted. “For a lot of them, that news will be wrenching. But we have a lot available these days in terms of new treatments and drug therapies,” she said, inviting her colleagues to give a crash course in their research.   

Immunologists and translational researchers Drs. Aude Chapuis and Sylvia Lee highlighted the latest work in immunotherapy, especially efforts to engineer T cells, a specialized type of immune cell, to better identify and attack cancer. Lee, who specializes in melanoma, also pointed out how much of that research relied on melanoma patients who participated in some of the first clinical trials of immunotherapy.

Dr. Jennifer Adair, meanwhile, sketched out the future of gene therapy for the mayor, who'd toured her lab before the roundtable. There, Adair talked about studying how nanoparticles might be used to help treat diseases and showed off a mobile “gene therapy-in-a-box” that aims to make these therapies accessible to more people worldwide.

“I can’t wait to see what’s next,” Durkan said. “It’s so important to bring what’s happening here to people not just in Seattle but around the world.”

Jenny Durkan speaking with Fred Hutch scientists

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan participates in a discussion with several Fred Hutch scientists during a campus visit Wednesday.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A city built on science

Speaking with Hutch Vice President for Business Development & Strategy Dr. Niki Robinson, the mayor pledged to keep Seattle at the forefront of bioscience breakthroughs, the topic of a previous visit to the Hutch shortly after she was elected to office.

“We have all the tools we need here in Seattle to continue to be leaders in innovation,” Durkan said. “We have some of the best scientists, we have great educational institutions, we have great corporations. But it doesn’t happen on its own. We as a city have to double down on our commitment to building that atmosphere and ecosystem that will make research successful.”

She sees echoes today of what made the Seattle region one of the hottest tech markets in the world, where first Microsoft and then Amazon and other companies lured engineers. Organizations like Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are bringing talent in medicine and life sciences to the region. Durkan promised to do what she can to attract that talent and keep it here.

Before she left, Durkan made a request for the Hutch researchers. Her Seattle Promise College Tuition Program, which aims to make education affordable for all students, is partnering with area institutions on internship programs. It would be great to bring the next generation of STEM leaders here to Fred Hutch, she said.

“In 20 years, these students will be the ones sitting around this table,” Durkan said.

Davidson replied Fred Hutch would love to have them.

“But in 20 years,” she added, “I hope they aren’t talking about cancer.”

Jake Siegel, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism. Reach him at jsiegel@fredhutch.org.

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