Although Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch), a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designated Cancer Center, is best known as a globally prominent cancer research organization, its scientists have actually been on the forefront of COVID-19 investigations. That’s because up there in Seattle, the scientists at Fred Hutch have developed a deep expertise in virology—how infectious agents interact with the body, for example. In fact, over 20% of investigators at Fred Hutch report active projects involving research into COVID-19, from detailed mapping investigations, like understanding the structure of a key antibody involved with neutralizing the novel coronavirus to Phase 3 clinical trials. In many cases, such a research imperative there unfolds regardless of when the pandemic ends. Even though Fred Hutch is focused on finding cancer cures, there are five reasons why so much deep virology expertise has evolved at Fred Hutch. TrialSite shares these in recognition of the significant impact this prominent Seattle-based research site has in infectious disease research, influencing the fight against COVID-19.
Recently shared at Hutch News Stories, these five key drivers include 1) Many cancers originate from infectious agents, 2) Cancer treatments often leave patients immunocompromised, 3) Bone marrow transplantation harnesses the immune system in cancer fight, 4) Talent, and 5) A culture of scientific inquiry.
Infectious Disease Focus
As it turns out, up to 20% of cancers around the world are triggered by viruses and other pathogens. Fred Hutch investigators are on a mission to better understand infectious diseases, such as how are cancer-causing infections transmitted and acquired? What factors govern the progression from chronic infection to cancer? What therapies can better support prevention protecting against infection-related cancers?
Key investigations at Fred Hutch in this area include those of Dr. Warren Phipps with a focus on viral, immunologic and genetic factors associated with HIV-associated malignancies with a particular focus on Kaposi sarcoma. As it turns out, Dr. Phipps spends considerable time with the UCI-Fred Hutch collaboration in Kampala, Uganda.
Then there is the lab of Dr. Denise Galloway running an ongoing comprehensive investigation of HPV infection-triggered cervical cancer. This team’s discoveries have contributed to the development of the HPV vaccine. While Dr. Nina Salama investigates a stomach bacterium known that actually infects half the world’s population. Associated with ulcers and gastric cancer, Helicobacter pylori is apparently the third leading cancer killer globally. Fred Hutch reports that Dr. Salama’s team discovered that H. pylori’s corkscrew shape enables the pathogen to colonize the stomach by burrowing into the mucus lining essentially shielding it from the intensely acidic environment.
Other investigators are pursuing interesting and important virology studies there, such as Dr. Susan Bullman and Dr. Christopher Johnston investigating trillions of bacteria that live on and within humans and their link to cancer.
Bone Marrow Transplantation & Immune System in Fight against Cancer
It was scientists at Fred Hutch back in the 1970s that first demonstrated a reproducible example of the immune system’s power to cure cancer, hence the foundation of the immuno-oncology scientific movement that in part started there in Seattle. Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and team undertook pioneering work in the field of bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for previously incurable blood cancers. Dr. Thomas won the Nobel Prize for this effort and, of course, sparked the revolutionary new field of immunotherapy.
Fred Hutch pursues several classes of immunotherapy targeting cancer. The focus includes:
· Adoptive T-cell therapies
· Antibody-based therapies
· Checkpoint inhibitors
These research programs lead to therapies that can be used in infectious diseases.
Cancer Treatments can leave Patients Immunocompromised
Individuals that receive various cancer treatments, whether it be based on chemotherapy or transplantation, are especially vulnerable to viral infections. This is especially the case with children and the elderly. At Fred Hutch, Dr. Michael Boeckh’s lab investigates the genetics of susceptibility to viruses and how to prevent and mitigate infectious disease in immunocompromised patients. While the lab of Dr. Steve Pergam targets the research risk factors and prevention methods involved with pathogens, such as norovirus, respiratory viruses and cytomegalovirus (CMV)—a long time focus area of Fred Hutch—their research represents especially dangerous ones associated with blood stem cell transplant patients. Dr. Adam Geballe is a prominent figure here pursuing studies in this field. Fred Hutch-based Dr. Geoffrey Hill discovered that antibodies play a vital role in the immuno-response to CMV.
Perhaps due to a confluence of factors and forces, the momentum now unfolding in advancement of virology and infectious disease research perhaps originates from a legacy made possible by the pioneers in the early days at Fred Hutch, such as the late Dr. Paul Neiman, a founding member of Fred Hutch and transplant physician and cancer biologist. This also includes Dr. Larry Corey, who investigates the development of safe and effective antivirals targeting herpes, HIV and hepatitis; during his tenure as president and director of the Fred Hutch from 2011 to 2014, he helped drive life-saving discoveries across a broad spectrum of disease. Dr. Corey is considered an international expert in the design and testing of vaccines and helped to found the COVID-19 Prevention Network, led by the National Institutes of Health.
Other key investigational rock stars include Dr. Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist trained in infectious disease dynamics and virus evolution, who employs advanced computing and dynamic statistical models to study and monitor the spread of pathogens, their advancement and changes over time. He has been developing tools to use genetic sequencing data to develop evolutionary trees of viruses since his start here in Seattle back in 2013. A “COVID-19 detective,” he consistently shares his work on Twitter, contributing to public health knowledge ongoing.
Factor in this commitment to scientific exploration highlighted in the recent Fred Hutch entry along with the expectations that such talent has established, combining 44 years of life saving research and this culture of excellence impacts on a daily basis the 3,000 employees across all five scientific divisions there.
That’s possibly an explanation as to how Dr. Tom Lynch, just weeks into his tenure as president and director of Fred Hutch, was facing perhaps the most monmumental challenge of a professional lifetime. How to lead such an influential and large research organization through the worst pandemic of modern history! He has done well and thanks in no small part to the culture of independent and free thinking scientists that face challenging problem solving as a daily concern—its in the culture.
This culture expands into a collaborative web of investigational centers and sites—from University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Immunology to the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation as well as the Infectious Disease Research Institute—all driven by synergistic forces intimately traceable at least in part back to Fred Hutch virology and infectious disease study.