It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 2017 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and like many of the other postdoctoral research fellows, Dr. Kristin Anderson was still there, hard at work.
On a break she walked past a tall, wiry man sitting by the coffee bar. He looked up through a pair of black-framed glasses and asked her, “Excuse me, are you a researcher?”
He was Seattle biotech writer Luke Timmerman, publisher of The Timmerman Report, and he was eager to meet the kind of people who worked such hours, people he was hoping to support. He was looking for stories that could help him explain to potential donors why he was planning to summit Mount Everest, about five months from that day, to raise money for Fred Hutch.
Seattle Cancer Summit
Join Luke Timmerman at Fred Hutch in Seattle for a conversation with leading scientists, entrepreneurs and investors.
Friday, May 10
Pelton Auditorium, Weintraub Building
Reluctant at first to chat, Anderson was soon regaling him about her work on ways to harness the human immune system against ovarian cancer. She even gave him a tour of the lab, where he met the technicians who were also at work between the holidays, in search of cures. Diagnosed at the age of 28 with triple-negative breast cancer, she credits targeted therapy for saving her life. Anderson called her work in the immunotherapy laboratory of Dr. Phil Greenberg another way to “pay it forward.”
“As a recipient of philanthropic donations, one of the things I’ve learned is that donors know we need to take risks. They care about what we are doing, and they want success. Two of the three papers I’m writing right now would not have happened without their help,” Anderson said.
A year and a half after that chance meeting in the coffee bar, having reached the summit of Mount Everest — and having raised more than $339,000 for the Hutch’s Climb to Fight Cancer — Timmerman is ready for more. Much more.
This July, he will lead a Climb to Fight Cancer expedition team of 28 biotech executives, investors and scientists to the snowcapped summit of fabled Mount Kilimanjaro — at 19,340 feet, the highest peak in Africa and one of the Seven Summits, comprising the tallest mountains of every continent.
Already, Timmerman and his band of money-raising mountaineers have gathered donations totaling more than $1 million. Timmerman believes his team can reach its goal to raise more than $1.3 million by their July 17 departure date.
“My view of hiking is to bring a bunch of water, trail mix and candy to the Cascades. Hike to the top, go back to the bottom. Celebrate with a burger,” she said. “This is different.”
As the designated Fred Hutch scientist for the Kilimanjaro expedition, Anderson will lend her expertise to the team, and she also has her own fundraising page. Until the trip comes, however, she will still be concentrating on her work in the lab while trying to squeeze in some training for the seven-day trek.
“There are some people on the team doing intensive training, which is sort of intimidating, because I just do not have the time,” Anderson said.
Nevertheless, she is increasing the stair climbing, the stationary bicycle workouts, and the weekend hikes with her three kids, her husband (Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Justin Taylor) and friends. She’s confident she will be fit for the climb and looks forward to it.
“Part of my job is to think a lot,” Anderson said. “On a treadmill, out in open space or just walking with people who want to talk about science can be an inspiration.”
During the adventure, she will be talking about cancer science with a knowledgeable audience. Her own research centers on boosting the immune response of T cells against solid tumors, which have been harder to treat with these targeted approaches than blood cancers. She is particularly interested in two cancer-related proteins, WT1 and mesothelin, which are overproduced in certain tumors and might serve as targets for genetically engineered T-cells in ovarian, pancreatic and lung cancers.
While the Kilimanjaro climb is gentle compared to most Alpine climbing, let alone summiting Everest, only about half of the people who try to reach the top do so. Many are turned back on this journey from savannah to glaciers by altitude sickness. To get the team there and back safely, longtime Climb to Fight Cancer partner Alpine Ascents International — the same Seattle-based expedition leaders who took Timmerman to the top of the world a year ago — will guide the expedition.
Lead guide Eric Murphy, of Bellingham, Washington, summited Mount Everest last year with Timmerman. Joining them will be Lakpa Rita Sherpa, a world-renowned mountaineer who was Base Camp manager on that expedition — and has summited Everest 15 times. Both guides are on Everest again this month but plan to be back in time, and rested, for Kilimanjaro.
“Eric is the most experienced western guide on Kilimanjaro,” Timmerman said. “He has climbed it more than 100 times.”
The Alpine Ascents team successfully guides 90% of its clients to the summit of Kilimanjaro because they insist on a slow, seven-day, 37-mile trek to the top and back, to give team members a chance to acclimate to the cold thin air, just 200 miles from the equator. And just like on Everest, safety concerns prevail over personal goals.
Individual team members will fly out to Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Arusha, Tanzania, on July 18. They will rest and check their gear on the 19th and be dropped off at the trailhead on the morning of the 20th. High up the mountain on the sixth day, July 25, they’ll take the arduous eight- to 10-hour climb in thin air to reach the summit.
Timmerman said he was astonished at the level of interest in this expedition. “We have a list of 50 people who wanted to do this,” he said. “There are 28 on the team, the group maximum.”
Joining Timmerman and Anderson on the expedition is the Hutch’s chief fundraiser, Kelly O’Brien, vice president of Philanthropy. She's an experienced mountaineer who summited Kilimanjaro in 2012 and trekked to Everest Base Camp in 2014.
“Our team likes to say, ‘Climb a mountain, save a life.’” O’Brien said. “Luke’s vision and leadership, along with the outpouring of support from his climbers and their networks, are showing what’s possible when we pair our community’s passion with the Hutch’s lifesaving work.
“Luke and his team are fueling an extraordinary influx of funds that will accelerate the pace of research and move ideas to patients more quickly. We hope the expedition inspires more climbers to join us and provides hope to those who are in the midst of their own cancer journey.”
Timmerman said he looks forward to seeing his eclectic assortment of business and science experts develop the kind of camaraderie he savors whenever he climbs mountains with a team. “I think there is going to be terrific networking within this group,” he said.
This spring, he has hosted two summits, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, to raise money for the Hutch and discuss trends in the biotechnology industry he writes about in his newsletter. He will host a third Cancer Summit on Friday, May 10, on the Hutch campus.
“It is deeply meaningful to me that I can take this network that I’ve built over the years and put it to work for cancer research,” he said.
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.