Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center bioengineer Aaron Ring, MD, PhD, was recently named the new Anderson Family Endowed Chair for Immunotherapy.
Endowed by long-time Fred Hutch supporters Ric and Kaylene Anderson, the chair will provide Ring with sustained support as he untangles the immune system’s complexities and uses immuno-pharmacological approaches to develop cancer immunotherapies.
“We couldn’t be happier to have Aaron as the recipient. We know he’s going to do great things,” said Ric Anderson, who previously served as secretary of the Fred Hutch Board of Trustees and currently co-chairs the organization’s Board of Advisors. “We’re so happy to continue supporting Fred Hutch. It really has a global footprint, and the more you learn about it, the more you appreciate the impact Fred Hutch has on our community in its pursuit to eliminate cancer and related diseases as a cause of human suffering and death.”
The chair honors Kaylene’s parents, who died from cancer. To continue the momentum of exciting new cell-based therapies that were revolutionizing care for blood cancer patients, she, Ric and their three children established the chair in 2019.
Now, the family is excited to watch Ring take immunotherapy into new frontiers.
“It’s very humbling. I feel a deep amount of gratitude, but it’s also inspiring,” said Ring. “I continue to be inspired by the way the Hutch innovates and invests in game-changing research.”
Ring’s endowed chair exemplifies Fred Hutch’s commitment to finding new ways to treat cancer and improve human health, said Fred Hutch President and Director Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., MD, who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for the President and Director.
“The Andersons have been integral to the Hutch community for over 20 years. I’m thrilled that their generosity is supporting a scientist as creative and ambitious as Aaron. His work will help take our immunotherapy program in compelling new directions,” Lynch said.
Ring, who moved from Yale University to Fred Hutch this summer, is interested in using the natural "drugs" found within the immune system to treat cancer and reveal new biological insights.
“The immune system is involved in every aspect of human health,” he said. “It’s great for my short attention span and means there’s always something to get excited about.”
The immune system has also evolved a panoply of strategies to ward off external and internal dangers. Proteins called cytokines help regulate how immune cells respond to infection; antibodies help block viruses and various immune cells help clear infected or cancerous cells. Ring began his career by working with drugs to understand complex immune pathways, eventually using directed evolution to engineer bespoke drugs that could be used therapeutically.
Several of Ring’s improvements on natural immune proteins have formed the basis of new biotech companies that he founded or co-founded with collaborators.
One engineered molecule that Ring is working to bring to patients is his first-in-class engineered cytokine therapy. Dubbed “decoy-resistant” IL-18, it’s based on the cytokine interleukin-18, which the human immune system uses to stimulate inflammatory responses. IL-18 acts by binding a receptor on target cells, but also can be easily rendered inactive — or jammed — by a decoy molecule that prevents it from activating its targets. Ring’s “unjammable” form of IL-18 can’t be blocked by the decoy.
Decoy-resistant IL-18 can give cancer-fighting immune cells a boost, helping improve their effects in situations where immunotherapies like checkpoint inhibitors won’t work. Fred Hutch’s Geoff Hill, MD, and Hill Lab postdoctoral fellow Simone Minnie, PhD, tested the potential of decoy-resistant IL-18 in preclinical research aimed at improving bone marrow transplantation without enhancing graft-vs.-host disease.
“It’s never been easier to develop a drug than right now,” Ring said. “It’s great how democratized the process has become. Now we’re moving beyond drug discovery into target discovery.”
The search for new drug targets needs a fresh approach, Ring said, and he’s eager to branch out. He has his sights set on a different type of natural drug: antibodies and specifically autoantibodies, or antibodies that bind to our own tissues. While autoimmunity can be bad news — as in the case of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus — there’s evidence that autoantibodies directed at tumors can help fight them.
There’s still a lot left to uncover about how this works, and Ring is looking forward to unraveling it. But he’s also planning on using anti-cancer autoantibodies as guides to cancer’s weak spots and potential treatment targets. The targets that autoantibodies aim at, and the biological processes they stimulate, will help researchers better understand disease mechanisms and the molecules on which cancers rely, Ring said.
Fred Hutch is the perfect place to expand his horizons, he said.
“It’s historically been a pioneer in what was, at the time, radical but truly revolutionary and transformative therapies for patients in multiple diseases,” Ring said of the Nobel Prize-winning work in bone marrow transplantation led by E. Donnall Thomas, MD, which also positioned the Hutch as a leader in other immune-based cancer treatments, including cell-based immunotherapies. “That’s compelling to me, as my own research has become more translationally oriented.”
Ring has several established collaborations with Fred Hutch scientists, including Hill, and is looking forward to forging more now that he is in Seattle. Fred Hutch’s placement in the region’s life sciences and tech ecosystem will also be a boost to his research, he noted.
“It’s really extraordinary here,” said Ring, who grew up in Spokane and considers the Pacific Northwest his natural habitat. “To be able to have it all here — scientifically, translationally, entrepreneurially and personally — is a dream come true.”
An endowed chair provides 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.
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 email@example.com.