Category Archives: News

Hutch United Fellowships Awarded!

I’m excited to announce that the first Hutch United Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellowships have been awarded to Vasundhara Sridharan and Dr. Athea Vichas! The Fellowship is the result of efforts by a large team of dedicated volunteers, the Fred Hutch Development team and senior Fred Hutch Leadership. The awards signify a very important step towards increasing scientific diversity at the Fred Hutch.

Read more about the awardees in the Fred Hutch News Service piece written by Bill Briggs:

http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2016/07/hutch-united-fellowships-diversity-aml-grant-research-genomic-sequencing.html

Schedule for 3rd Annual Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium Announced

SGICS LogoWe organized the first Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium (SGICS) three years ago as a means to bring together local (Seattle-based) scientific talent focused on, as the title implies, genetic instability and cancer. The objective was to learn about local (unpublished) research and meet the researchers in an effort to increase dialog and collaboration. This year, marking the 3rd year of SGICS, will feature 14 short talks and 22 poster presentations selected from submitted abstracts. The talks and posters will focus on the following areas of research: Genetic Engineering & Cancer Biology, Chromosome Metabolism, DNA Damage Response, Genetic Instability & DNA Repair Disorders.

Dr. Aziz Sancar, Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is this year’s Keynote Speaker. Dr. Sancar will be talking about his extraordinary work on ‘Genome-wide analysis of human global and trancription-coupled excision repair of UV damage at single-nucleotide resolution.’

SGICS is a grassroots event organized by a team of graduate students and postdocs from Fred Hutch and UW School of Medicine. SGICS will be held on June 15th, 2015, from 8:30am to 6:30pm at the Orin Smith Auditorium at the South Lake Union Campus of the University of Washington. Check out the website for the final schedule and more information.

Personalized medicine changing what it means to ‘do the best we can’ for patients

The Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle held a conference this week that focused on systems biology and cancer. Experts from all over the country were brought together  to share their work on how biological and clinical data derived from a single patient or big data derived from thousands of patients can be analyzed, integrated and, ultimately, used to treat that patient or others like him or her. The technological developments of the past decade and half allow us to generate large amounts of data from any given individual. These data include the individual’s genetic sequence, the levels of different genes being expressed in their cells, and other clinically relevant information. A big challenge for physicians is how to bring the benefits from these technological advances into the clinic to benefit patients.

During the conference, Dr. Tony Blau, a physician scientist from the University of Washington, described how having access to large amounts of data has changed what  ‘doing the best we can’ for a patient means since he first started treating cancer. He urged that it is time to bridge the enormous the gap between the rate of growth of current technological advancements and the rate at which these advancements are making it to the clinic. He discussed some of his own efforts toward this goal in a TEDx talk earlier this year. Check it out for yourself!

 

Adapted from Dr. Tony Blau's TEDx Tacoma talk and presentation at the ISB Systems Biology and Cancer Symposium, April 2014
Adapted from Dr. Tony Blau’s TEDx Tacoma talk and presentation at the ISB Systems Biology and Cancer Symposium, April 2014

Q&A with Dr. Alan Kristal about omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer risk

Many of you have asked about the recent study Hutch study that links consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with prostate cancer. Here I share a really nice post from the Petri Dish blog by the Hutch that answers many questions:

http://questmagazine.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/qa-with-dr-alan-kristal-about-omega-3-fatty-acids-and-prostate-cancer-risk/

It’s not my job . . . or is it?

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Joe Palca, a science correspondent for NPR and creater of Joe’s Big Idea. I had invited Joe to come speak to young scientists at our institution about science writing. In addition to picking Joe’s brain for career advice, this was an opportunity for us to learn more about science reporting. Most scientists will tell you they feel that main stream media science stories leave out important details and often misrepresent the impact of scientific findings.

Joe, who has a PhD in sleep psychology from UCSC, seemed like the perfect person to have this conversation with since he knows the worlds of science and journalism well. I expected him to echo some of our frustrations and maybe vent about limitations of reporting to a general public that has a limited science education or gripe about colleagues who don’t pay attention to detail. To my surprise, the conversation went in a very different direction. When asked if Joe feels like it’s his (and other science journalists’) responsibility to educate the public about science, he responded “no” and said that his responsibility was to report on science, which is different.  He pointed out that most science reporting pieces usually have no more than one or two sentences actually describing the science—the story is often about the people doing the science, not the science itself. This was a surprising and interesting perspective to hear. Thinking more about this, Joe’s right. He’s a journalist, not an educator. His job is to report on the story. Why do we as scientist place the burden for educating the public on the shoulders of journalist?

If it isn’t Joe’s job to educate the public, whose job is it? Regional and national science education centers like the Pacific Science Center in Seattle do a great job of educating some of the public. But can we, as scientists in the trenches, do more? I think we can. And we should. Most science in this country is funded by the government which means tax payer money. We routinely give progress reports in the form of scientific publications to the scientific community, but isn’t it our job to give a progress report to the taxpayer as well? Having said that, I do concede this is a really difficult task. Most of us are great at presenting our most recent findings in auditoriums full of experts but when it comes to explaining what we do to grandma, we can find ourselves at a loss for words!

Science makes it into the news if there’s a huge discovery in a particular field. But, there’s a lot of cool science going on all the time! I know because my friends are work on it—human evolution, anti-freeze proteins, genetic engineering, just to name a few. Now, let’s see if we can find a way to tell you about it. Stay tuned!

FHCRC scientists meet with Joe Palca, NPR Reporter
FHCRC scientists meet with Joe Palca, NPR Reporter

Photo: By Philamer Calses, University of Washington PhD Candidate

Message from a princess: Cancer is a global health problem

When I think of global health issues pertinent to the developing world, I generally think of infectious diseases–like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. Cancer usually doesn’t come to mind–it’s only a problem for the developed world, right? Wrong.

After attending a lecture today by Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan (King Hussein Cancer Foundation), it is clear to me that cancer is a global health problem. The lecture also included remarks by  Dr. Julie Gralow (Seattle Cancer Care Alliance oncologist and Jill Bennett Endowed Professor in Breast Cancer), Dr. Julio Frenk, (Dean, Harvard School of Public Health and former Health Minister of Mexico) and Dr. Felicia Knaul (Harvard Medical School). It turns out that about 54% of cancer diagnoses and 64% of cancer deaths in the world come from developing countries. By 2030, the percentage cancer deaths that come from developing countries is predicted to go up to 70%. What’s tragic is that many of these deaths are preventable! For example, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia has 80-90% survival rate in the western world, while the survival rate in developing countries is around 10%.

CANCER IN DEV

Another example is cervical cancer. While cervical cancer related mortality has gone down in the US due to extensive screening, it still a major problem in developing countries. Several years ago, scientists (including some who work across the hall from me) developed a vaccine that prevents a vast majority of cervical cancer by targeting the Human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer. A recent study (written about in the New York Times today) shows that the incidence of HPV infection has significantly decreased in teenagers since the introduction of the HPV vaccine. This is great news for the US as we can also expect rates of cervical cancer to go down. But what about poorer countries? Under the direction of Dr. Julio Frenk, Mexico has implemented health reforms that provide the HPV vaccine free to school-aged girls. This practice is not widespread in most low and mid-income countries though it can help prevent cervical cancer.

Additionally, a fact of life with cancer often is the necessity for palliative care–end of life care that generally involves management of pain. While availability of medicines to manage pain is good in the US, Canada, Australia and the EU, it is a huge problem in developing countries. Sadly, not only will more people die of cancer in developing countries but they will likely die in more pain.

What are the reasons for these disparities?
One obvious reason is access to healthcare facilities that can provide the appropriate care–especially in rural settings. More than just facilities, many places lack well-trained oncologist and other professionals. Princess Dina Mired pointed out that many developing countries send students to the West for studies, but few come back to practice medicine in their home countries for various reasons. Even for patients who have access to healthcare and trained providers, paying for the treatment is problematic. The lecturers today cited that prior to health reforms in Mexico, almost 30% of breast cancer patients never finished cancer therapy (for which their families had already gone into severe debt) because they ran out of money. Of course, financial strain as  result of expensive treatment even with insurance can also be a problem here in the US.

There is also a divide in global funding of programs to eradicate infectious diseases vs those that target cancer in developing countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others have made a commendable and effective push to improve survival from infectious diseases. But why has cancer in developing countries been largely ignored by the folks holding the money bags? Perhaps it is because of the myth, which I was guilty of believing, that cancer is only a problem for wealthy countries. I hope the some of the numbers I provided above will convince you this is simply not true.

How do we overcome these disparities to reduce cancer incidence and improve cancer survival in developing countries?
Obvious solutions are improve access to health care, have better trained staff and good equipment, make health care affordable, and get more people to invest in cancer prevention and treatment for developing countries.

So, how do we do that?

What are your solutions?

 

 

References and suggested reading:
*Saving the Children — Improving Childhood Cancer Treatment in Developing Countries
Blog by Dr. Felicia Knaul
FHCRC Petri Dish blog post on HPV vaccine efficacy

Gene patents? No thank you!

The US Supreme Court ruled this morning that human genes cannot be patented. My research and clinical colleagues are overjoyed! The suit was brought forward by the Association for Molecular Pathology against Myriad Genetics. The defendant, Myriad Genetics, has held patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes since the mid 1990’s. Women with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are at high risk for developing breast and some other  kinds of cancers. Men with mutations in BRCA2 are also at a high risk for breast cancer.

Myriad Genetics has been the only company that clinicians could refer patients for identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Myriad Genetics has not licensed other companies to do the testing. It costs around $3000 to get the test done and most insurance companies cover the cost for patients with family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer. If you can shell out the $3000, Myriad Genetics conveniently offers direct-to-consumer testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2—allowing you to bypass your physician altogether!

The monopoly held by Myriad Genetics will now come to an end. It was wrong to begin with!

Why should a company be able to patent genetic information that exists in all of us? Patenting the technology or method used for discovery of the genetic material or gene sequence is legitimate but not the sequence itself. It seems absurd to me that a company can file for a patent for a naturally occurring phenomenon. Our bodies have been making use of that genetic information for a lot longer than Myriad Genetics has been in existence—sans patent.

The Supreme Court ruling is a win for patients (consumers). With the patent ruled unconstitutional, other companies can develop methods or use existing, publicly available, technologies, to sequence BRCA1 and BRCA2, in addition to other cancer susceptibility genes. With additional competition, we can hope for a test that costs less than $3000. This is a reasonable expectation since scientists are currently racing to sequence the entire human genome (>20,000 genes and other non-genic regions) for $1000. We can also hope that these companies will encourage public sharing of information about different mutations that may us better understand a class of mutations called variants of unknown significance, discussed elsewhere. Myriad Genetics stopped sharing this kind of information a few years ago because it “doesn’t make a lot of business sense,” according to CEO Peter Meldrum1.

What about business and the bottom line? Myriad Genetics will continue to profit from BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing as they hold the experience, expertise and a large database. Perhaps the profit margin may go down as competitors enter the market. There is now space in the market for others to get a piece of the commercial genetic testing pie.

Overall, this is a huge victory–for patients, clinicians and scientists.

1 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-28/myriad-stymies-cancer-answers-by-impeding-data-sharing.html

Brainstorm for breast cancer

As the recipient of the Thomsen Family Breast Cancer Research Fellowship, I was invited to speak about my work on chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer at a gathering of the Breast Cancer Research Institute. In the audience were breast cancer clinicians (surgeons, oncologists, radiologists) and research scientists (basic scientists, translational biologists, epidemiologists) from the Fred Hutch/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington.

This was a rare opportunity for both clinicians and basic science researchers to share data and have the opportunity to collectively help move the field forward. Following my presentation and presentations by other award recipients, there was a round-table discussion to do exactly that. We were provided with a list of directives to guide how breast cancer research should be funded at the local level and, as a table, asked to provide feedback on those directives.

My table consisted of one other basic scientist and three radiologists who develop and modify MRI techniques for early and better detection of breast tumors. As we discussed the merits of the listed directives, one of the radiologists shared that he thought large data-gathering consortia (which collect many different kinds of data from a large number of patients) may be a waste of resources as those efforts are not driven by a specific hypothesis (or idea) to be tested. The basic scientist and I responded that for us those large data-sets are invaluable! We can test hypotheses that we develop on non-clinical, lab-based experiments on patient data available in those data sets. A great discussion followed.

This anecdote demonstrates the importance of having such round-table discussions among researchers and clinicians. We can best evaluate effective strategies and the most appropriate use of resources working together. It was a rare opportunity to brainstorm with experts from different fields. All of our approaches and contributions may be different but we all share the same goal–improve survival from breast cancer by developing strategies to better prevent, detect, and treat this terrible disease.

Women in STEM fields: Interview by Susannah Meyer, high school student

Women in STEM fields: Interview by Susannah Meyer, high school student

Susannah Meyer, a high school student, interviewed Rebecca Caruso, Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications for L’Oreal USA, Joanna Kelley, a postdoc at Stanford University and future faculty at Washington State University studying biological diversity, and myself regarding the current state of affairs and future solutions for improving the representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the United States. You can read Susannah’s blog on the topic which includes a summary of the interviews and a video interview.