Fearless Science is ...

Hutch researchers take bold approaches to solving hard problems
Photo of Trevor Bedford speaking at AAAS
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle, Fred Hutch evolutionary biologist Dr. Trevor Bedford spoke about his research to track the evolution and spread of the new coronavirus, which was shortly after named SARS-CoV-2. Photo by Natalie Myers / Fred Hutch News Service

Fearless science is a passion for pushing boundaries and the relentless pursuit of answers. It’s doing what’s never been done. It’s asking different questions, pioneering new ways of working, and reaching across disciplines to spark discovery. It’s following the science and one’s instincts, knowing that every advance can lead to new insights and unexpected possibilities.  

Fearless science has been the cornerstone of Fred Hutch since Dr. Bill Hutchinson’s original vision to create a new type of cancer center and his collaboration with Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who pioneered bone marrow transplantation and launched the world’s first BMT program. That breakthrough redefined scientists’ fundamental understanding of how to cure cancer — and earned Dr. Thomas a Nobel prize. It also launched Fred Hutch’s decades-long trajectory as a global leader in immunotherapy.

When he joined Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, President and Director Dr. Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., said, “Fearless science is humanity at its best.”

Since then, Lynch, who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, has witnessed that fearless science in action — something he mentions frequently in virtual events for Fred Hutch employees and for the community.

What does fearless science look like? Here are some recent examples:

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In mid-February of 2020, Dr. Trevor Bedford took the stage at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle to talk with top scientists and the media about what he was seeing with the novel coronavirus spread using his NextStrain platform. At a time when few public officials in America realized the threat of this virus, he raised an early alarm that it had a high likelihood of gathering steam and spreading beyond the initial outbreak in China. Bedford was able to harness the cutting-edge genetic sequencing of the virus being performed and shared by researchers across the globe to create an accurate map of how it was spreading. He pushed forward the state of the art for tracking and predicting diseases.

Only two weeks later he released preliminary research that showed the virus was circulating in Washington state much more widely than believed and had been for some time. His research prompted swift action by public health departments, elected officials, community and business leaders to take steps designed to slow the spread.

At that time, Drs. Leo Stamatatos, Andrew Maguire, Marie Pancera and team immediately began research into COVID-19 antibodies to discover which were most potent at neutralizing the virus. This crucial understanding of the immune proteins our bodies deploy to thwart the SARS-CoV-2 virus would inform the development of potential treatments and preventative measures such as vaccines. The team had been collaborating for years on understanding antibodies and the B-cells that produce them in our blood as part of the search for an HIV vaccine. They eagerly took their expertise and pivoted to tackle another urgent crisis.

After identifying the potent antibody known as CV30, the team continued to research its structure and neutralizing action, collaborating with experts in the molecular visualization technique X-ray crystallography at Argonne National Laboratory to create a model of the nanoscale protein that will guide the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Illustration of CV30 antibody
This “cartoon” image, generated by an X-ray analysis of real proteins, shows how molecules located at the business end (blue) of a neutralizing antibody jam the ability of molecules at the tip of coronavirus spikes (pink) to bind with a receptor (gold) on the surface of human cells, which otherwise would lead to infection. Image by Nicholas Hurlburt

Virologist Dr. Keith Jerome moved quickly to build capacity for diagnostic testing to detect the coronavirus at the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Lab at a time when there were few options in the U.S. His work is an excellent example of building new connections between disciplines. At the same time the testing effort was being ramped up, Jerome and Hutch colleague Dr. Martine Aubert, were finalizing research on the idea that lifelong infections with herpes viruses might be cured by using the DNA-cutting tools of gene therapy. This early hint of a potential method to address the root of the infection provides hope for the nearly 500 million people under age 50 with herpes simplex virus type 2.

This perseverance in focusing on root causes — a focus that can become the centerpiece of a researcher’s career — is illustrated by Dr. Nina Salama, who holds the Dr. Penny E. Petersen Memorial Chair for Lymphoma Research. She has been working for more than two decades to understand the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which infects about half the world’s population and is a key risk factor for stomach cancer. Early in 2020, she and her team published findings that revealed how H. pylori maintains its helical shape — a critical factor in its ability to anchor in the stomach’s lining.

From the first years of their careers, fearless scientists learn to recognize and seize important new research questions. Several early career virologists at the Hutch pivoted to apply their expertise to the novel coronavirus — even as they set up workspaces at home when the pandemic forced the Hutch campus to ramp down operations.

Photo of scientist Tyler Starr in a lab
Dr. Tyler Starr, a postdoc in Dr. Jesse Bloom's lab, used his virology expertise to switch to studying the novel coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

That willingness to pivot, even on the global stage, extends to the top experts, as exemplified by Dr. Larry Corey, renowned virologist and former president and director of Fred Hutch. Corey has been working on HIV vaccines since the 1980s. So he was ready when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sought his help to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. By using the expertise and infrastructure of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network that is based at the Hutch and co-led by Corey, the COVID-19 Prevention Network has been able to optimize very large COVID vaccine trials with tens of thousands of participants, ultimately helping to test the multiple vaccines that will be needed to cover the global population.

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