Understanding Viruses and Their Role in Cancer and Disease

Our scientists apply laboratory, clinical and computational approaches to advance knowledge of viruses and how viral infections can be better detected, prevented and treated. Our virology investigations range from basic research into how HIV and influenza evolve to understanding the role of viral infections in cancer and preventing viral transmission among immunocompromised individuals, including those undergoing cancer treatment.

This work takes place in every scientific division at Fred Hutch, particularly in our Vaccine and Infectious Disease and Human Biology divisions. Our virologists study a range of viruses, including influenza, HIV, herpes viruses, cancer-causing agents like human papillomavirus and Merkel cell polyomavirus, and viruses that are most dangerous to people with weak immune systems.

Virology, Vaccines and Potential Cures

Virologists at Fred Hutch are doing important work that could lead to better treatments, and even cures, for HIV and other viral diseases. For example, Dr. Keith Jerome is developing gene-editing tools designed to remove damaging viral genes that have tucked themselves into our genetic code, or to insert genes that can protect cells from invading viruses, especially HIV. Dr. Joshua Schiffer is developing mathematical models to inform the development of new approaches to potentially curing HIV and other viral infections.

Pioneering HIV vaccine researchers including Dr. Larry Corey and Dr. Julie McElrath lead the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which is based at Fred Hutch and has conducted the majority of the published, presented or ongoing clinical trials of preventive HIV vaccines worldwide. Earlier, as the leader of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, Corey drove the effort to use “viral load” — a measurement of how much HIV is in the bloodstream — to gauge the effectiveness of drug combinations. Those early trials showed that combinations of antiviral drugs can block infection continuously, turning HIV into a survivable chronic disease.

Investigating Viral Immunity

Fred Hutch investigators are studying immune responses to viruses involved in diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS. For example, Dr. Anthony Rongvaux studies the first steps that lead to a productive immune response. These involve innate immune cells that initially recognize problems, such as cells infected by a virus or transformed by malignant changes. Dr. Larry Corey and his colleagues identified a class of immune cells that reside long-term in the genital skin and mucosa. These cells are believed to be responsible for suppressing symptoms and recurring outbreaks of genital herpes, a finding that has shed light on what controls virus emergence.

Many teams at Fred Hutch are investigating immune responses to HIV. Among them are collaborators Dr. Andrew McGuire and Dr. Leonidas Stamatatos, who study the immune response to HIV. They are identifying the immune pathways toward the most broadly protective immune responses and applying that knowledge to designing improved HIV vaccines. Dr. Julie Overbaugh’s lab has shown that broadly neutralizing antibodies, which may be able to block infection from a wide swath of HIV variants, can develop in infants within months and with little genetic tweaking. These infant immune responses may hold clues to designing quick-acting HIV vaccines. Overbaugh and Dr. Jesse Bloom are developing new approaches to comprehensively map how HIV escapes the antibody response, which will be important for both antibody therapy and vaccines. 

How Viruses Contribute to Cancer and Other Diseases

Several Fred Hutch researchers study how viral infection can lead to cancer. They include Dr. Warren Phipps, who focuses on the viral, immunologic and genetic factors behind HIV-associated malignancies, particularly Kaposi sarcoma. As Deputy Director, Global Oncology & Medical Director of the UCI-Fred Hutch collaboration in Kampala, Uganda, Phipps spends most of his time in Kampala working with Ugandan physicians and treating a large cohort of Kaposi sarcoma patients.

Dr. Denise Galloway’s lab showed that nearly every case of cervical cancer arises from HPV infection. Her team made other key discoveries that were crucial to the development of the HPV vaccine. She now studies HPV vaccine dosing to determine the optimal range needed to confer protection.

Left: Dr. Denise Galloway in her lab. Right: Dr. Warren Phipps at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala.
Left: Dr. Denise Galloway in her lab. Right: Dr. Warren Phipps at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala.

Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Helping Immunocompromised Patients

People with compromised immune systems, including infants, the elderly and people undergoing chemotherapy or transplantation, are particularly vulnerable to viral infections. Dr. Michael Boeckh’s lab investigates the genetics of susceptibility to respiratory and other viruses and how to prevent and reduce the severity of infectious disease in immunocompromised people. Dr. Steve Pergam’s lab studies risk factors and prevention methods related to pathogens, including norovirus, respiratory viruses and cytomegalovirus (CMV), which are especially dangerous to blood stem cell transplant patients.

Several of our research labs investigate CMV. They include the lab led by Dr. Adam Geballe, who investigates how CMV and similar viruses interact with target cells in our bodies, along with the strategies evolving on each side to evade or combat the other. Dr. Geoffrey Hill’s lab discovered that antibodies play a vital role in the immune system’s defenses against CMV. This insight could pave the way for cheaper, safer therapies to protect patients against CMV.

Latest Virology News

Virus researchers Cohn and Blanco-Melo win coveted grants Pew and Searle scholar programs each give a boost to accomplished, early-career scientists June 13, 2023
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