Filling in the gaps in cancer research
On my way to work each morning, I walk by the entrance to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the cancer treatment center that is a partnership between Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s. Even though it takes just a few seconds to travel past SCCA’s circular driveway and sliding glass doors, it can be the most meaningful—and humbling—part of my day, because I often encounter families grappling with cancer.
Outside SCCA, patients hold hands with their spouses, taking cautious steps on legs weakened by treatment. Occasionally, I see patients sitting and enjoying the simple pleasure of a sunny day. There are also healthy men and women, some of whom are cancer survivors, coming in for follow-up appointments with a new grip on life.
These people serve as daily reminders of cancer’s brutality, of the courage it takes to fight the disease, and of the Hutchinson Center’s goal of translating research into treatments that improve people’s lives.
With this goal in mind, and with the New Year looming, I thought it would be heartening to take stock of our recent progress. In just the past year, our major accomplishments have included:
- Pinpointing how improved bone marrow and stem-cell transplant techniques have sparked significant improvements in post-transplant survival.
- Discovering that human immune systems are surprisingly alike, a finding that may lead to new ways to detect, diagnose, and treat cancer and diseases of the immune system.
- Pioneering a new method of using umbilical cord blood to treat leukemia.
- Making a critical advance in determining the cause of a common form of muscular dystrophy.
- Discovering that regular use of aspirin and/or ibuprofen may help prevent colon cancer or improve the disease’s course.
Reflecting these and other achievements, our work continues to get recognized and rewarded at the highest levels. The Hutchinson Center was recently chosen to lead a national effort to develop immunotherapies—less toxic, less invasive alternatives to chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. We were also selected to lead a multimillion dollar, five-year program to improve breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment. And our Dr. Muneesh Tewari won the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for research that could lead to better ways to detect and treat cancer.
It’s not always easy to see how these advances trickle down to real patients. After all, science can be an agonizing process, full of fits and starts. When I think of this, I remember hearing a researcher liken the cancer war to a huge mosaic. Zero in on a particular tile and you see only an isolated drab of color. But look at the whole picture and you can see that each piece of research fills in another gap, creating links that lead to new solutions—and to a world that is increasingly rid of cancer.
by Justin Matlick
Quest Science Writer