Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Sun Valley Science Salon Looks at Precision Cancer Fighting
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Dr. Stan Riddell says his claim to fame is that former vice President Joe Biden toured his lab. COURTESY: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
 
Saturday, August 10, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

It was tempting to look at Dr. Stan Riddell sitting on the lawn of John and Carey Dondero’s home alongside the Big Wood River and wish he were at work, instead.

If he were back in the lab at Fred Hutch in Seattle, we might be one evening closer to a cure for cancer.

Riddell is a pioneer in immunotherapy. It was his research that figured out how to remove immune cells, or T cells, from a patient’s bloodstream, genetically reprogram them to feature manmade cancer-fighting molecules, multiply them in the lab and put them back in the body to kill cancer cells.

 
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The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is expanding into this iconic steam plant in Seattle. COURTESY: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center by Robert Hood
 

He’s also used stem cell transplants to treat patients with leukemias and other blood-related cancers And he discovered that molecular mismatches between donor and recipient can boost the cancer-fighting potential of a blood stem cell transplant.

What he’s worked on proved so successful that the company that sprang out of it was eventually sold for $9 billion.

“Many patients who would’ve had weeks or months to live are now in full remission,” he said.

But cancer research needs dollars to keep plugging away. And that’s why Riddell and his colleague-- breast cancer researcher Dr. V.K. Gadi--were in Sun Valley.

 
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“We’d just as soon be out of business,” said Dr. V.K. Gadi. COURTESY: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center by Robert Hood
 

“This is our eighth annual event with Hutch, and what they do in cancer research is exciting,” said John Dondero, looking out over a small crowd of potential benefactors seated on his lawn. “They’re not satisfied with a 90 percent cure rate. They’re striving for 100 percent. And, with their research on personalized research, they’re getting closer.”

Fred Hutch, whose motto is “Cures Start Here,” has long been on the cutting edge of cancer prevention detection and treatment. It established the first cancer prevention research program in the country. Its Women’s Health Initiative uncovered the risks of combined hormone therapy for postmenopausal women, preventing more than 20,000 cases of breast cancer per year in the United States.

Its pioneering work in bone marrow transplants was the first to prove that the immune system could stop cancer. And its research paved the way for the HPV vaccine, which could prevent cancer in millions of people worldwide.

It is now partnering with data and computer science technicians—namely, the new Allen Institute for Immunology--to use big data to forge new scientific discoveries improving early detection and personalizing treatment.

The research will try to figure out what causes the immune system to go awry, turning on its own tissues, missing abnormal cancer cells in the process or resulting in autoimmune diseases.

One of the problems is that it’s so hard to access data in the United States. A lot of the data Fred Hutch uses comes from Northern Europe where data collected on people from birth.

To illustrate what researchers are up against, Riddell asked the audience to think about when they come to a traffic light and see three signals.

“Can you imagine if there were 5,000 lights, instead, and you’re supposed to interpret if 2,500 of those are green so you can go? You couldn’t do that. We’re learning how to interpret that data so we know what we can do in the future.”

Cancer is a disease of aging—the longer you live, the more cells have the opportunity to mutate, said  Riddell. Scientists are chipping away at most cancers, with the mortality going down slowly. But mortality rates are not falling off a cliff, he added.

Right now, Riddell said, his work addresses patients for whom all other treatments have failed.

“We’ve got to figure out how we can move these new treatments up so we can save people from all those other therapies,” he added.

Dr. V.K. Gadi, a medical oncologist who specializes in caring for patients with breast cancer, said the risk of cancer increases during the first year after giving birth. But then the pregnancy offers a measure of protection.

Today there are personalized therapies for breast cancer that involve taking tumors from patients and manipulating them to find out what’s driving the cancer.

Things like Parp inhibitors keep cancer cells from repairing their damaged DNA, causing them to die.

Researchers have developed a blood test to tell if a person has cancer. Now, they’re wondering if they can use it on “normal” people, Gadi said.  If it works it will help pick up earlier, which is the holy grail. But the problem is that genetic tests don’t pick up everything.

Emotional stress does increase stress hormones, but whether it plays a role in cancer, is unclear, he added.

Gadi said one of his biggest fears looking forwards is a rise in liver cancer caused by obesity. Fat in the liver is a predictor of liver cancer, and that’s a tough cancer to treat, he said.

“In Japan breast cancer is rare but when Japanese adopt the Western diet, it goes up. But in Japan gastrointestinal cancer is common,” he added. “We’re trying to understand how diet contributes to cancer risk, cancer prevention.  But it probably goes back to what your mother said, ‘Eat your vegetables.’ ”

He paused, and then smiled at the audience

“We’d just as soon be out of business.”

 

WHO IS FRED HUTCH?

Fred “Hutch” Hutchinson was a major league baseball player and manager who died of cancer at 45. His older brother Dr. Bill Hutchinson established the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his honor.

The center has earned a handful of Nobel Prizes for its research and has 450 active clinical trials going on giving patients access to cutting-edge treatments. It has 3,000 scientists and staff working to end cancer. And it has mentored 500 secondary school teachers to inspire the next generation of scientists.

 

 

 

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