Science Says: Cracking the code in solid tumors

How scientists are developing targeted new therapies for cancers of the breast, lung, stomach and more

Fred Hutch researchers are using their understanding of cancer and immunity to develop new solid tumor therapies that can be tailored to each patient. President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch talks with Dr. Nancy Davidson (breast cancer), Dr. McGarry Houghton (lung cancer) and Dr. Nina Salama (gastric cancer) about the newest advances. He also checks in with infectious disease expert Dr. Joshua Schiffer on the latest in COVID-19.

Video by Fred Hutch

How are scientists developing better treatments and cures for solid tumors?

For Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., the topic is personal. Lynch is a lung cancer doctor who has treated thousands of patients. He was also part of a research team whose discovery became the basis for the first lung cancer drug to successfully target a genetic mutation.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president and director and holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair talked with three Fred Hutch scientists about the challenges of treating solid tumors — such as those of the lung, breast and stomach — and strategies on the horizon to overcome them.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Focusing on the genes that drive breast cancer: Genetic profiling of breast cancers is helping researchers more accurately pinpoint and target the mechanism driving each patient's cancer, said Dr. Nancy Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Hutch's Clinical Research Division, who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Collaborative Research.
  • A leap forward for lung cancer: Dr. McGarry Houghton noted that while immune checkpoint inhibitors (drugs that release the brakes on the immune system) have been a revolutionary advance for lung cancer, they work for just a small fraction of patients. "We've spent the last decade learning exactly why those drugs work … and don't work," he said, "and we are on the precipice of another leap forward."
  • Getting to the cause of gastric cancer: "A lot of people don't know that infectious agents — viruses, bacteria and parasites — cause 15%-20% of all cancers," said Dr. Nina Salama, who holds the Penny E. Peterson Memorial Chair for Lymphoma Research. She is unraveling the complex relationship between stomach cancer and Helicobacter pylori, a common gut bacterium. She is also investigating why Black men in the U.S. have a higher rate of stomach cancer, and worse outcomes, than white men.

Lynch also got the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic from Hutch expert Dr. Joshua Schiffer. Schiffer said his modeling shows that we'll end the pandemic faster by vaccinating people who are still unvaccinated than by giving booster shots to the general population. Schiffer also discussed the central role of Fred Hutch's COVID-19 Clinical Research Center in testing new drugs, including Merck's new antiviral pill, which he called a potential game-changer. "It's just an incredible story that the Hutch, with donor support, was able to open a clinical research center so quickly and recruit so many participants for incredibly important trials," he said.

The next Science Says, on Tuesday, Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. Pacific time, will feature Hutch scientists in conversation with Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show." 

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