Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has awarded eight grants totaling $1 million to a dozen of its scientists through the Evergreen Fund, which supports early research projects thought to be good prospects for commercial partnerships.
Since 2017, the Evergreen Fund has awarded $3 million to projects proposed by researchers seeking a timely boost to help bring their ideas from the lab bench closer to the bedside.
"Evergreen Fund grants allow researchers to complete the critical experiments that venture capital and pharma partners expect to see when evaluating a partnership opportunity,” said Hilary Hehman, the Hutch’s director of strategic partnerships and alliances. “It’s also fantastic to have a group of seasoned investors around the table to provide feedback on all the programs, funded or not, that are evaluated.”
This year, the Evergreen Fund distributed four pilot grants of $50,000 each that are designed to give “big and bold ideas with commercial application” an infusion of funds to demonstrate the project’s potential within a six-month period. Another four projects were awarded $200,000 each to accelerate their research over a two-year period. The goal of these larger, so-called “Beyond Pilot” grants is to help researchers whose ideas are further along. They have shown promising data and a commercial path forward, but their projects need more development to attract external financial support.
Among the Beyond Pilot awardees this year are Drs. Roland Strong and Veronika Spies, who are testing ways to block a receptor, NKG2D, which they discovered is produced on the surfaces of ovarian cancer cells.
Their discovery was a major surprise, because the same receptor is normally found on immune cells, which use it to dock onto matching sites on tumors — presumably to destroy them. Strong and Spies found instead that when NKG2D is produced on the surface of cancer cells, it serves like one-half of a switch. It connects to its matching counterpart on neighboring cell surfaces, completing the switch, which in turn accelerates tumor growth. The researchers have designed a molecule that jams such connections to prevent this “self-stimulation.” They are testing this blocking protein to see if it slows or stops the growth of ovarian tumors in mice.
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.