Dr. Denise Galloway elected Fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy

Cancer biologist contributed basic and translational insights that made the cancer-preventive HPV vaccine possible
Dr. Denise Galloway
Dr. Denise Galloway's work on cancer-causing viruses helped make the cancer-preventive HPV vaccine possible. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Denise Galloway was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the American Association for Cancer Research. She joins 255 scientists who have made significant and enduring impacts in cancer research. Galloway is an expert on the connections between viruses and cancer.

Galloway’s pioneering work on virus-like particles and the link between HPV and cervical cancer paved the way for the cancer-preventive human papillomavirus vaccine. Her investigations into the ways that certain viruses promote cancer allowed her to develop a diagnostic test to predict a recurrence of the deadly skin cancer Merkel cell carcinoma. 

“Denise’s research has not only led to a deeper understanding of the molecular biology of HPV infection but also contributed to the development of vaccines that have prevented HPV-linked cancers in thousands of young adults,” said Hutch cancer biologist and AACR Fellow Dr. Robert Eisenman, who nominated Galloway.

AACR Academy Fellows, who undergo a rigorous election process after being nominated by their peers, serve as a global brain trust of top contributors to cancer science and medicine who help advance the mission of the AACR to prevent and cure all cancers through research, education, communication, collaboration, science policy and advocacy, and funding for cancer research, according to the AACR press release.

“It is quite an honor to join this illustrious group,” said Galloway, who directs the Hutch’s Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center and holds the Paul Stephanus Memorial Endowed Chair.

Supporting lifesaving contributions with foundational insights

Throughout her career, Galloway’s work has mingled basic, foundational studies with translational work aimed at improving human health.

“It’s been really fulfilling to get in at the start with HPV,” she said. “In the early ‘80s, the viruses that are important in cervical cancer were first found. I started working on HPV then, and I’ve been able to see it through to a vaccine that, if taken, could protect the world from all HPV-associated cancers.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, scientists had few tools they could use to manipulate cellular biology. Viruses were one of these tools: It fascinated Galloway that just a piece of a virus could begin to turn a normal, mortal cell into an immortal, eternally dividing cell. When it became clear that certain cancers were caused by viruses like HPV, she took the opportunity to meld her interest in basic cellular biology with studies that could have a broader human health impact and began working on HPV.

The AACR has honored Galloway’s science-spanning contributions before. In 2011, the Seattle HPV Team, the Seattle-based, multidisciplinary and cross-institutional HPV research team she headed, received the AACR Team Science Award.

The Seattle HPV team helped make the HPV vaccine possible. Their studies comparing large numbers of people with and without cervical cancer showed that HPV underlies nearly all cases of cervical cancer and a growing number of head and neck cancers. Virus-like particles, in which a single external viral protein assembles into shapes that recreate the virus’ shape, eventually became the basis for the HPV vaccine, and Galloway contributed early insights into their creation. The team also administered the proof-of-principle clinical trial that showed that a monovalent HPV-16 vaccine protected against HPV-16 infection and disease.

Galloway’s HPV studies continue to span the gamut from basic to clinical questions. Her lab works to understand how the virus causes genetic instability and DNA damage, which make the mutations that lead to cervical cancer possible. Neutralizing antibodies — specialized proteins that block viral infection — are a key piece of the protective immune response to a natural viral infection or a vaccine. Galloway’s team is examining how neutralizing antibodies arise to different HPV types, and how this compares to HPV-16, one of the most-studied strains.

She is also continuing to pursue key questions about the vaccine, including how many doses are needed to trigger long-lasting, protective immunity. As part of this, Galloway is involved in the KEN SHE Study (for KENya Single-dose HPV-vaccine Efficacy Study), designed to determine the efficacy of just one dose prevent HPV infection. Minimizing the number of doses, which makes getting the vaccine easier and cheaper, will make the life-saving vaccine more accessible for women around the world.

HPV isn’t the only cancer-causing virus that has captured Galloway’s attention. In 2008, researchers showed that most cases of the deadly skin cancer Merkel cell carcinoma, or MCC, are caused by the Merkel cell polyomavirus, or MCPyV. Galloway immediately applied her unique blend of translational and basic studies to the problem.

“About 70% of people have MCPyV, but every year, only 2,500 people are diagnosed with MCC caused by MCPyV,” she said.

Much remains to be learned about how infection with MCPyV can promote cancer, and Galloway aims to better understand how the virus’s biology drives cancer formation. Intriguing aspects of the MCPyV’s biology set it apart from other polyomaviruses, and Galloway’s group is studying how its unusual characteristics may promote or restrain cancer. With Fred Hutch colleague and MCC expert Dr. Paul Nghiem, she also developed an antibody test to catch disease recurrence early.

Other infections can also cause cancer. As scientific director of the Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center, Galloway supports a diverse array of research that seeks to better understand and treat the 20% of cancers worldwide that can be traced to a pathogen, from the Epstein Barr virus to the stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

“Dr. Galloway has been at the forefront in the understanding the biology of HPV and related viruses, and development of vaccines against them for many years,” said Hutch colleague and brain cancer researcher Dr. Eric Holland, who directs the Hutch’s Human Biology Division and Seattle Tumor Translational Research. “She has also been a scientific thought leader here at the Hutch for many decades.”

With the other 2022 Fellows, Galloway will be inducted into the AACR Academy at a special ceremony in April at the AACR Annual Meeting. She joins six Fred Hutch colleagues, including Eisenman, President Emeritus Dr. Gary Gilliland and President Emeritus and Nobel Laureate Dr. Leland Hartwell.

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