Distinguished Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center brain cancer expert Eric Holland, MD, PhD, was named the Endowed Chair in Cancer Biology. Holland directs Fred Hutch’s Human Biology Division and Seattle Translational Tumor Research, an interdisciplinary and cross-institutional program developed to enhance collaboration and accelerate progress among solid tumor researchers. He also leads a laboratory team dedicated to advancing treatments for brain cancers by untangling the molecular underpinnings of this spectrum of diseases.
The new chair recognizes more than Holland’s world-renowned contributions to our understanding of brain cancer, said Fred Hutch President and Director Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., MD.
“Eric’s expertise in the clinic and at the bench has been a huge boon to solid tumor research at Fred Hutch,” said Lynch, who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair. “His vision encompasses all solid tumors. He has been — and will continue to be — a key player as we optimize our precision oncology efforts and bring cutting-edge treatment advances to cancer patients.”
Fred Hutch currently has 38 endowed chairs, which allow donors to partner with scientists and clinicians, and invest in high-risk, high-reward research. The sustained, flexible support offered by this new chair will promote forward-looking research, Holland said.
“Science and technology move so rapidly, you simply cannot foresee what will be important five years from now,” Holland said.
While government grants are scientists’ bread and butter, they support projects outlined years ago — often before a new technology or finding takes the field in unexpected directions.
“This endowed chair will allow my lab to be nimble,” Holland said. “It will allow my team to keep up with current technologies and make absolutely cutting-edge observations.”
Holland arrived at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington in 2013 having made seminal contributions to brain cancer research and after building a world-class brain cancer center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He received his PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Chicago, his MD from Stanford University, and trained in neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles.
At MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and later MSK, Holland balanced surgical care of brain cancer patients with deep investigations into the molecular alterations driving brain tumors. His strategy to model brain tumors in mice in a way that mimics human brain tumors has been used across the brain cancer field to better understand the genetic alterations that drive brain tumors. Holland used his approach to distinguish between gene mutations that drive tumor formation and progression from mutations that are merely along for the ride. He also discovered that tumor cells can act like stem cells in ways that help them resist treatment.
At Fred Hutch and UW Medicine, as leader of the Human Biology Division and STTR, Holland has helped strengthen solid tumor research teams, overseeing recruitment of dynamic faculty members, including those focused on bladder and pancreatic cancers.
As part of these efforts, Holland has been a spectacular mentor of young organ-directed cancer biologists, Lynch said.
Holland has been a member of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) since 2009. He continues to lead a laboratory team working to deepen understanding of the genetic alterations that shape brain tumors, and how they could be targeted therapeutically. In 2021, he received a National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award to support this work. In particular, Holland’s team focuses on gene fusions, when two genes become welded together into a new entity that may help cancer develop. The chemotherapy Gleevec treats chronic myeloid leukemia by targeting a cancer-promoting enzyme created by a gene fusion.
“Often these gene fusions are the only major genetic change in these tumors,” Holland said. “That makes these high-value targets therapeutically.”
His team is also working to understand how cancers can promote growth and survival by resurrecting genetic strategies usually present only during embryonic development. This period of life “resembles controlled cancer in many ways,” Holland said: rampant but regulated growth. When tumors reactivate embryonic genetic programs, they can take advantage of the growth without the regulation. But it also makes them vulnerable: now they express genes or gene variants not found anywhere else in the body, which could make for potent and selective treatment targets.
During his tenure at Fred Hutch, Holland has taken advantage of advances in data science to create tumor landscapes that researchers and oncologists can use to better understand tumors and, one day, better treat people diagnosed with cancer.
His team has built an innovative, interactive data visualization tool called Oncoscape to help scientists navigate tumor molecular landscapes. They’re also working on creating landscapes that are more in-depth and more informative.
“The ultimate goal is to have a landscape of all tumors that we can use as a reference landscape,” Holland said.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.