W. M. Keck Foundation awards $1 million to Hutchinson Center to study how environmental exposures lead to disease

SEATTLE — Apr 7, 2011 — A $1 million grant from W.M. Keck Foundation will allow researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to pursue an ambitious project to sequence DNA from the human immune system to shed light on the genetic signatures of a large number of pathogenic exposures, starting with 17 common viruses and bacteria.

This summer, by sequencing tens of millions of antibody genes per person – more than 100 times more genes than can be sequenced with existing technology – a research team led by Harlan Robins, Ph.D., and Chris Carlson, Ph.D., will track which changes related to environmental exposure are shared by individuals with the same disease.

Eventually, the technology could lead to the development of a simple blood test that would reveal which pathogens a person has been exposed to,  what viruses or bugs he or she is currently fighting, and how well-equipped his or her immune system is to protect against future pathogenic threats.

Robins and Carlson are assistant and associate faculty members, respectively, of the Hutchinson Center’s Public Health Sciences Division. Robins’ work is with the Center’s Herbold Computational Biology Program, while Carlson’s research group studies large populations of people to find parallels between genetic variations and common diseases, including cancer. 

The two intend to develop an extensive list of unique cell signatures that correspond with specific pathogenic exposures and disease states that could be quickly and inexpensively accessed by clinicians to diagnose and predict disease risk.

Robins said the team will begin by studying samples involving high-prevalence viruses such as herpes simplex. "Many people have been exposed to herpes simplex but fewer have symptoms," he explained. The team eventually aims to move on to study less-common viruses, bacteria and fungi.

"The new technology allows us to see how immune systems respond to exposure, rather than just assuming," Carlson said. "We have a strategy that allows us to go really deep, with lots of immune cells, to see the forest rather than the trees."

Invented by Robins and Carlson in collaboration with Edus Warren, M.D., Ph.D., an associate member of the Hutchinson Center’s Clinical Research Division, the technology is available to the research community through the Adaptive TCR Corporation.

Established in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company, W.M. Keck Foundation funds distinctive, novel and high-risk approaches to science, medical research, engineering and undergraduate education that have the potential to lay the groundwork for new paradigms, technologies and discoveries that will impact humanity. With assets of more than $1 billion, the foundation is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. More information is available at www.wmkeck.org.

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, our interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists and humanitarians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Our researchers, including three Nobel laureates, bring a relentless pursuit and passion for health, knowledge and hope to their work and to the world. For more information, please visit www.fhcrc.org.

Christi Ball Loso
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
(206) 667-5215