Cell Biology

Life Processes and the Causes of Disease

The cell is a fundamental unit of life, and an understanding of cell structure and function underlies much research in the biomedical sciences. Our investigators have made major contributions to the understanding of the basic biology of life processes, including the cellular and molecular mechanisms behind cancer and other diseases.

Landmark discoveries made by our cell biology researchers include former Fred Hutch president and director Dr. Lee Hartwell’s discovery of the mechanisms responsible for causing cells to grow and divide, a process known as the cell cycle, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 2001. Dr. Bruce Clurman also made major contributions to our understanding of the cell cycle. Dr. Linda Buck became a 2004 Nobel laureate for her findings on how our olfactory system works, including discovering the genes that give rise to the olfactory receptors in cells.

Dr. Sue Biggins has done groundbreaking work on how specialized “cellular machines” known as kinetochores allow cells to separate and distribute their chromosomes accurately. Mistakes in chromosome segregation are a hallmark of cancer cells and genetic defects that can lead to miscarriage. Dr. Mark Groudine is renowned for his work on gene regulation and expression and the structure of chromatin, the DNA packaging molecules that help organize our genome and regulate gene expression.

Dr. Mark Roth has made breakthrough findings on suspended animation, in which the metabolic rate is brought nearly to a standstill, a technique that could one day help trauma patients survive and keep human organs viable for longer periods before transplantation. And Dr. Jim Priess has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of how cells come together to form complex multicellular organisms during development.

Insights into the Fundamental Elements of Life

Our cell biology researchers collaborate with molecular, structural, genetic, developmental and evolutionary biologists as well as experts in genomics, genetics, virology, infectious disease, computational biology, pathology and clinical research. 

Many Fred Hutch scientists seek a deeper understanding of fundamental cellular structures. Structures inside cells influence everything from individual cell movement to an organism’s metabolism. They include the cytoskeleton, a dynamic internal protein network that gives cells their shape and their ability to move — a key function that spreading cancer cells can turn to their advantage. Our researchers also study how cells package and organize their DNA, which influences gene expression, and how the shape of a nerve cell’s membrane affects communication between neurons.

Our investigators also study fundamental cellular processes that cancer cells often co-opt. For example, stem cells can either renew themselves or turn into specialized cells. Cancer cells can often acquire “stem-like” properties that allow them to grow unfettered. Our researchers study normal and cancer stem cells, as well as characteristics of early-developing organs that tumors can adopt. Other processes they study in the context of health and disease include how cells adhere to and communicate with one another and how they build proteins.

Left: UW graduate student Abraham Gutierrez operates the Optical Trap machine in the Biggins Lab. Right: Cell mitosis, the process of cellular division.
Left: UW graduate student Abraham Gutierrez operates the Optical Trap machine in the Biggins Lab. Right: Cell mitosis, the process of cellular division.

Photo at left by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Understanding Why and How Disease Occurs

Many of our scientists study the cellular, molecular and genetic changes that trigger cancer and its progression. These studies may reveal unique susceptibilities in cancer cells that could be targeted by new therapies.

A change in cellular metabolism is a hallmark of cancer, and our scientists are working to understand how this occurs and how it fuels cancer growth. Our investigators have also shed light on how changes in the cell cycle — the cycle in which cells grow and divide — push normal cells toward cancer.


Having the wrong number of chromosomes is another hallmark of cancer, and it can underlie other disorders. Several of our scientists study how cells properly parcel out their chromosomes during division. Their research encompasses essential molecular machines involved in the process, how interactions between chromosomes influence proper segregation, how structures within the cell help it ensure genome stability, and how cells respond when the process goes awry.

Our scientists also seek to define the molecular and genetic changes that cause cancer. These can alter how tumors grow, spread and respond to anti-cancer therapy.

Metastasis, or the process by which tumor cells spread through the body, is another area of investigation at Fred Hutch. Our researchers study how tumor cells initially break away from the original tumor and spark new tumors elsewhere. They also study the phenomenon of tumor-cell dormancy, in which tumor cells can quietly resist anti-cancer treatments before beginning to grow anew — sometimes years later.

Our research extends beyond cancer to include viral infections, including HIV and influenza. This work includes studies of how viruses and our immune systems interact, how viruses adapt to new hosts, and how to treat infection in cancer patients and other immunocompromised individuals.

Latest Cell Biology News

Geneticist and cell-cycle expert Dr. Linda Breeden retires Revealed genetic underpinnings of cell cycle and cell dormancy January 25, 2023
Science Says: The promise of precision medicine How understanding unique traits of individuals and their cancers can lead to precise treatments May 27, 2022
'Blobology' no more Cryo-EM microscopy opens up biology at atomic scales October 8, 2021
Two Fred Hutch postdocs named 2021 Damon Runyon Fellows Awards to Drs. Edie Crosse and Ching-Ho Chang fund ‘creative, high-risk projects’ in cancer research August 13, 2021