McGarry Houghton, MD, a pulmonary physician-scientist whose work explores the immune system’s role in cancer and lung cancer early detection, has been named the first recipient of the Satya and Rao Remala Family Endowed Chair at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Houghton, who oversees lung cancer research at Fred Hutch, describes himself as a “lung tumor microenvironment person.” With a background in noncancerous lung diseases, Houghton’s research delves into how the human immune system responds to cancer. To advance that research, Houghton collects tissue from lung cancer surgeries and biopsy specimens “to try to understand what has gone right and what has gone wrong with the immune system.” He is also deeply involved in developing ways to detect lung cancer before it has progressed, including investigating how antibodies can be enlisted to fight cancer.
"I'm a pulmonologist, not an oncologist, by training, so I’m trained in the diagnostic piece,” said Houghton, formerly at the University of Pittsburgh. “As someone who sees patients, I’m very familiar with our clinical limitations when it comes to early detection and how much we need help there. The Remala family is particularly interested in early detection and health care disparities and getting these early detection strategies to benefit people from underdeveloped countries.”
The Remala family has a longstanding philanthropic relationship with Fred Hutch through the Satya and Rao Remala Foundation. Rao Remala and his wife, Satya, started the foundation decades after Rao became the first South Asian employee hired at Microsoft. Reporting directly to founder and then-President Bill Gates, Rao Remala was one of the first 50 employees at the tech giant.
The Satya and Rao Remala Foundation is especially interested in promoting equitable access to health and education, especially in India, where Satya and Rao Remala grew up. The socioeconomic divide in India is vast and contributes to health disparities. This is particularly apparent for lung diseases.
“We hope this endowment will really help Dr. Houghton do out-of-the-box research,” said Rao Remala. "Would it be possible to have a simple way to detect lung cancer such as the PSA test has done for prostate cancer? Can we use AI to help early detection? As someone who understands data and the processing power of computers, I think technology can be part of the solution.”
Along those lines, Houghton is actively pursuing a plasma-based diagnostic tool that would be used in conjunction with CT screening for lung cancer early detection. “We have an active protocol at Fred Hutch to collect blood from all of the patients we see in our early detection clinic,” he said. “Using this specimen dataset, we hope to develop a simple blood test capable of distinguishing benign from malignant pulmonary nodules.”
Lung cancer rarely takes root in normal lungs, said Houghton, who notes that people with lung diseases such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are up to five times more likely to develop and die from lung cancer than other people.
“The big link in my mind is to figure out why people with chronic lung diseases are set up to get these infections and how that inflammation fuels lung cancer,” he said. “This idea of studying the previous life of the lung before the lung cancer developed is something very few people do.”
“There are different ways to approach the same problem," he said. "Most oncology and lung cancer research is looked at from the perspective of the cancer cell and the mutations it harbors. But I look at lung cancer from the outside in. I'm more interested in the cells around the tumor that make up the tumor microenvironment and fuel tumor growth.”
— Donor Satya Remala, of the Satya and Rao Remala Foundation
“Dr. Houghton has been pivotal to the success of the lung cancer program at Fred Hutch, and we are thrilled that he has received the Satya and Rao Remala Family Endowed Chair in recognition of his standing in the field,” said Geoffrey R. Hill, MD, José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research and Senior Vice President, Division Director, Translational Science and Therapeutics at Fred Hutch.
Satya Remala was 13 when her mother died of cancer.
“We want to work toward a world where cancer doesn’t exist,” she said. “We’ve been supporting Fred Hutch for a long time. When they reached out to us about doing something big like an endowment, we thought, ‘This is the right thing to do.’”
The Remalas’ commitment to health care is especially meaningful to Srilata Remala, Rao and Satya’s youngest daughter. Now in nursing school at Pacific Lutheran University, she worked as a research assistant at Fred Hutch in 2007.
“Our giving strategy has been to build endowments across organizations we support,” she said. “It's lifelong funding that will span generations. We believe that even when cancer is cured, research will continue and be ever evolving, which is why the Satya and Rao Remala Family Endowed Chair was created. It’s exciting to learn about how Fred Hutch is integrating data science, AI and other technologies into cancer research.”
Endowing a chair is a means of providing ongoing funding for a faculty member’s work via investment returns and recognizing their contributions and excellence in their field. At Fred Hutch, donors can choose to endow a chair for a faculty member with a gift of $2 million or more. Fred Hutch currently has 39 endowed chairs, which allow donors to partner with scientists and clinicians and invest in high-risk, high-reward research. Endowed chairs provide sustained, flexible support and promote forward-looking research.
Endowments are an investment in the future of Fred Hutch, said Tom Lynch, Jr., MD, Fred Hutch President and Director and holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair. “Every day, patients diagnosed with cancer come to us because they need hope. Endowments from families like the Remalas are the engine that drives the breakthroughs they need.”
Bonnie Rochman is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. A former health and parenting writer for Time, she has written a popular science book about genetics, "The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids—and the Kids We Have." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.