Infectious Diseases

Translating Knowledge into Treatments

Infectious diseases that cause cancer or that affect people who have cancer or weakened immune systems are critical areas of focus in our laboratory and clinical research. Much of this work happens within our Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division. Our Global Oncology program also investigates infectious diseases that are associated with high-burden cancers in low- and middle-income regions, including HIV, human papillomavirus and viral hepatitis.

We study the epidemiology of infectious diseases, investigate emerging infectious diseases, develop novel diagnostic methods and perform clinical trials on new treatments for major infections. Our basic research in this area also informs efforts to develop vaccines for infectious diseases, including HIV and malaria.

Understanding the Relationship Between Infectious Disease and Cancer

Up to 20 percent of cancers worldwide are caused, either directly or indirectly, by viruses and other pathogens. Our researchers hope to answer key questions about these infectious diseases, including: How are cancer-causing infections transmitted and acquired? What factors govern the progression from chronic infection to cancer? And what therapies can help prevent infection-related cancers? 

An HVTN lab technician retrieves tissue samples from the deep freeze at the HVTN lab in Seattle, Washington.
A lab technician retrieves samples from the deep freeze. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Improving Survival of Immunocompromised Patients

Many infections that are not normally life-threatening can have devastating effects on those with compromised immune systems. Cancer patients who are undergoing immunosuppressive therapy or who are recovering from a stem cell or bone marrow transplant are especially at risk from these opportunistic infections. Respiratory infections caused by the influenza virus, fungal infections and even the common cold can substantially reduce chances of survival. Our researchers are investigating how to prevent, diagnose and treat these diseases, as well as the role of immune cells in controlling them. Much of this research happens within our Infectious Disease Sciences Program. In one recent example, Dr. Michael Boeckh and his team helped conduct pivotal studies that led to the approval of a new drug for cytomegalovirus, a ubiquitous human herpesvirus that is the leading infectious killer of transplant patients.

Our researchers also investigate ways to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, especially among immunocompromised patients. Our Antimicrobial Stewardship Program aims to prevent the emergence and spread of these pathogens among cancer patients and transplant recipients, improve diagnosis and management of infectious diseases in these patients and develop guidelines for antibiotic selection and dosing.

Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center

The PAM IRC is leading the way in innovative, cross-disciplinary research to address the burden of cancers linked to infectious diseases. Led by Dr. Denise Galloway, the center brings together experts in infectious diseases, host-pathogen interactions, cancer biology, immunology, global oncology and immunotherapy. The group currently focuses on seven infectious diseases: human papillomavirus, Merkel cell polyomavirus, hepatitis B and C, Epstein-Barr virus, Kaposi sarcoma herpesvirus, HIV and H. pylori.

Microbiome Science and Other Emerging Research Areas

Among the newest and most exciting areas of research on susceptibility to disease is microbiome science — the study of the bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit the human body, particularly the skin, mouth and digestive tract. The interaction of the microbiome and the immune system has been shown to have a major impact on human physiology and health, and Fred Hutch researchers are delving into this field with the goal of better predicting health outcomes, understanding the mechanisms of disease and discovering ways to manipulate microbial communities in the body to promote health.

Research with Worldwide Impact

With expertise ranging from fundamental laboratory research in virology to globe-spanning clinical trials of new vaccines to prevent HIV, Fred Hutch scientists are having an impact throughout the world. One example of our pathbreaking work is our discovery of a human antibody that in laboratory tests blocks infection by the Epstein-Barr virus. Best known in the United States as a cause of mononucleosis, the virus is also responsible for about 200,000 cases of cancer worldwide — including Burkitt lymphoma, the most common childhood cancer in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mike Kiragga before and after his successful treatment for Burkitt lymphoma, the leading cause of pediatric cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mike Kiragga before and after his successful treatment for Burkitt lymphoma, the leading cause of pediatric cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

Photos by Uganda Cancer Institute (left) and Robert Hood / Fred Hutch (right)

Latest Infectious Disease News

Infectious disease scientists look beyond the pandemic A symposium about protecting people with weakened immune systems from microbial threats May 9, 2023
Could a 100-year-old TB vaccine help scientists find a better one? Harmless vaccine BCG is made of living bacteria; in tests might serve as a proxy for deadly tuberculosis December 12, 2022
Dr. Larry Corey receives Alexander Fleming Award Virologist honored by peers for his lifetime achievements against infectious diseases October 21, 2022
Researchers link mutations in coronavirus' internal machinery to higher risk of severe disease Early COVID-19 patients were more likely to be hospitalized if virus carried genetic trait January 25, 2022