The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

I had the opportunity yesterday evening to spend a couple of hours with my friend Lee Hartwell, President of “The Hutch” and 2001 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, and with three other scientists from the same institution, listening to desriptions of their work and having the chance to ask questions in a small-group setting. The other researchers were Rainer Storb, Beverly-Torok Storb, and Sunil Hingorani. Rainer is working on reducing the radio and chemo toxicity required in bone marrow transplants, Beverly is working on stem cells, and Sunil is working on early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Among the factoids I picked up:

The Hutch leads in receiving federal funds for cancer research.

Lee believes that the number of cancers known to be caused by viral or other contagious agents will continue to grow. Lee is heading a global drive toward increased early detection of cancers, since cure rates for these are often in the high ninety percentile. He is specifically working on trying to use protein markers in the blood to make early identification of specific cancers.

Beverly is completely sure that adult stem cells can only directly produce cells of related tissues, unlike embryonic stem cells, which can produce an entire animal.

She also concurred with the recent finding that, in some animals, adult skin stem cells can be reverted to ESC’s. The community is now working on making this happen for human cells. In response to a question, she confirmed that much leading edge research now goes on in countries where, unlike the US, research is allowed on human ESCs.

Contrary to early days, when “lethal doses” of radio and chemo were required as a first step in bone marrow transplants (in treating leukemia, lymphoma and related cancers), Rainer noted that today the radio and chemo are so moderate that the recipient can often maintain a normal life, treated as an outpatient.

Sunil despaired of losing “all” of his pancreatic cancer patients (this disease is a quick and relentless killer) in his clinical practice, and decided to try to accomplish the Catch-22 of finding markers for early detection. This is tough, since one reason the disease is so deadly is that it is rarely caught early enough. It turns out that one form of diabetes can predate the cancer diagnosis by up to 10 years, but its prevalence in the larger population makes its use difficult. He’s searching for additional precursor signals.

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, both confirming my feelings that The Hutch is doing useful research, and that the research part of our medical establishment is in better shape, perhaps, than the basic US medical treatment model, which, in my opinion, is badly broken.

Those who would like to meet Dr. Lee Hartwell, and hear more about his progress, can sign up for our Future in Review 2008 conference, where I will be interviewing him for a return engagement. You can register at www.futureinreview.com.

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