5 reasons why a cancer research center has virology expertise

Pathogens can cause diseases, the immune system can fight them
Photo of Drs. Steve Pergam, Helen Chu, Jesse Bloom and Trevor Bedford
Infectious disease experts Drs. Steve Pergam, Helen Chu, Jesse Bloom and Trevor Bedford participate in the Flu Science 101 Facebook Live Q&A at Fred Hutch in October 2019. Photo by Connor O'Shaughnessy / Fred Hutch News Service

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center were investigating the human immune system and how infectious agents interact with our bodies. That deep virology expertise became crucial to the global effort to end the pandemic. 

More than 20% of Fred Hutch researchers have had active projects in COVID-19, ranging from mapping the structure of a key antibody that neutralizes the SARS-CoV-2 virus to Phase 3 vaccine trials. And many of those projects will continue even after the pandemic ends. 

But why does a research organization founded and focused on finding cures for cancer have so much virology expertise? Here are five reasons:

Many cancers are caused by infectious agents

Up to 20% of cancers worldwide are caused, either directly or indirectly, by viruses and other pathogens. Fred Hutch researchers hope to answer key questions about these infectious diseases, including: How are cancer-causing infections transmitted and acquired? What factors govern the progression from chronic infection to cancer? And what therapies can help prevent infection-related cancers?

Several Fred Hutch researchers study how viral infection can lead to cancer. They include Dr. Warren Phipps, who focuses on the viral, immunologic and genetic factors behind HIV-associated malignancies, particularly Kaposi sarcoma.  As medical director of the UCI-Fred Hutch collaboration in Kampala, Uganda, Phipps spends most of his time in Kampala working with Ugandan physicians and treating Kaposi sarcoma patients.

Dr. Denise Galloway’s lab showed that nearly every case of cervical cancer arises from HPV infection. Her team made other key discoveries that were crucial to the development of the HPV vaccine. Galloway, who holds the Paul Stephanus Memorial Endowed Chair, now studies HPV vaccine dosing to determine the optimal range needed to confer protection.

Dr. Nina Salama, who holds the Dr. Penny E. Petersen Memorial Chair for Lymphoma Research, studies Helicobacter pylori, a stomach bacterium that infects half the world’s population and is associated with ulcers and gastric cancer — the third leading cancer killer worldwide. Her team found that H. pylori’s corkscrew shape allows the bug to colonize the stomach by burrowing into the mucus lining where it is protected from the acidic environment. 

Several researchers across the Hutch, such as Drs. Susan Bullman and Christopher Johnston, study the trillions of bacteria that live on us and within us — and the link between microbes and cancer. 

Researchers at Fred Hutch are pushing the boundaries of science to create the next generation of cures for patients who previously had little hope.

Bone marrow transplantation harnesses the immune system to fight cancer 

In the 1970s, a team of Fred Hutch scientists provided the first definitive and reproducible example of the immune system’s power to cure cancer. Led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, they pioneered bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for previously incurable blood cancers. This work won Thomas the Nobel Prize and helped spark a revolutionary new field of cancer treatment known as immunotherapy. 

Today, our researchers are studying and developing several types of next-generation immunotherapies, each of which boosts the immune system in different ways. These therapies can be used alone or in combination with conventional treatments or with one another. Our areas of focus in immunotherapy include: 

  • Adoptive T-cell therapies. These treatments involve transferring disease-fighting immune cells into a patient, often after genetically modifying them to target cancerous cells. T-cell therapies are being developed for blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. And they are being researched for skin, kidney, breast and pancreatic cancers.
  • Antibody-based therapies. These treatments use highly selective immune proteins called antibodies, sometimes attached to a  chemotherapeutic drug or joined to a radioactive particle so they focus the drug or radiation on cancer cells.
  • Checkpoint inhibitors. The immune system has built-in mechanisms called checkpoints that keep it from attacking normal cells or from switching off a legitimate immune reaction. Cancer cells often hijack these control mechanisms to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Checkpoint inhibitors interfere with that process and have shown success in some patients with melanoma, lung, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancer. 

Cancer treatments leave patients immunocompromised

People with compromised immune systems, including infants, the elderly and people undergoing chemotherapy or transplantation, are particularly vulnerable to viral infections. Dr. Michael Boeckh’s lab investigates the genetics of susceptibility to viruses and how to prevent and mitigate infectious disease in immunocompromised people. Dr. Steve Pergam’s lab studies risk factors and prevention methods related to pathogens, including norovirus, respiratory viruses and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which are especially dangerous to blood stem cell transplant patients. 

CMV, in particular, has been a longtime focus of Fred Hutch research since the dawn of the center’s transplant program. Current CMV researchers include Dr. Adam Geballe, who investigates how CMV and similar viruses interact with target cells in our bodies, along with the strategies evolving on each side to evade or combat the other. The team of Dr. Geoffrey Hill, who holds the José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research, discovered that antibodies play a vital role in the immune system’s defenses against CMV. This insight could pave the way for cheaper, safer therapies to protect patients against CMV. 

Remarkable researchers 

Throughout the history of the organization, remarkable researchers have led the way in exploring how the immune system works and connecting those explorations with cancer. Here are three examples that span the past, present and future.  

The late Dr. Paul Neiman was a founding member of Fred Hutch, a transplant physician and cancer biologist. He was well known in the scientific community for his fundamental research on the interplay between viruses and cancer cells, making key discoveries about the nature of retroviruses, the type of virus that includes HIV.

For more than four decades, Dr. Larry Corey has led the development of safe and effective antivirals for herpes, HIV and hepatitis infections. As president and director of Fred Hutch from 2011 to 2014, he helped drive lifesaving discoveries across an even broader spectrum of diseases. An international expert in the design and testing of vaccines, he is a key part of the global, strategic response to COVID-19 and helped to found the COVID-19 Prevention Network

An evolutionary biologist trained in infectious-disease dynamics and virus evolution, Dr. Trevor Bedford uses powerful computers and complex statistical methods to study the rapid spread of viruses and how they change over time. Since joining the Hutch in 2013, he has been developing tools to use genetic sequencing data to build evolutionary trees of viruses. Since January 2020, he has been a COVID-19 detective, sharing his work on Twitter and informing public health efforts to combat the pandemic.

A commitment to scientific exploration

Just weeks into his tenure as president and director of the Hutch, Raisbeck Endowed Chair holder Dr. Tom Lynch was faced with leading the organization through the pandemic. Fortunately, he was able to lean on the depth of expertise in infectious diseases already in the organization. He was also able to tap into the culture of independent, free-thinking scientists who are encouraged to focus on hard problems.

That culture allows Hutch researchers to explore the most scientifically fruitful avenues. Those explorations are supported by philanthropy, which provides flexible funding for research.

That culture extends beyond the Hutch itself into the community of researchers around the Seattle area. Many Hutch researchers are affiliated with the University of Washington, which has long had a strong virology program. Around the region, the Allen Institute for Immunology, the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the Infectious Disease Research Institute have all contributed to the global effort to stop the pandemic. 

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