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MERS remains primarily a camel virus — for now

Fred Hutch researchers use genetic sequence data to show virus reaches ‘dead end’ in humans

Jan. 16, 2018 | Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

photo of a camel

MERS — Middle East respiratory syndrome — virus has been found in dromedary camels in several countries, including Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Photo by Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

A new analysis of genetic history confirms the long-held suspicion that Middle East respiratory syndrome virus, which alarmed global health leaders in 2012 when it spilled over from camels to cause an often fatal illness in people, does not spread easily between humans.

At least not yet.

In a paper published today in the journal eLife, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Drs. Gytis Dudas and Trevor Bedford modeled phylogenetic trees, or genetic histories, of all available MERS genome sequences — 100 from camels and 174 from humans.

“The genomic data confirms that the MERS virus is not at the moment spreading readily from person to person,” said Bedford, an evolutionary biologist and the paper’s senior author. “Almost all of the cases in the Arabian Peninsula are short chains that spill over from camels, infect a few people and then die out. That had been suspected, but not quantified.”

The new analysis compared evolutionary changes in the camel and human genetic sequences to show that the virus jumped from camels to humans hundreds of times since 2012, with the 2,000-plus human cases recorded since resulting mostly from repeated spillovers rather than person-to-person spread.

“Andrew [co-author Andrew Rambaut, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology] had championed this idea for some time, and it had been accepted by most that it was not one introduction from camels into humans back in 2012,” Bedford said. “Our analysis placed it at somewhere between 300 and 800 introductions with each introduction being responsible for an average of three or four cases.”

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How the immune system’s key organ regenerates itself

Watch: Hutch researcher discusses harnessing the thymus’s knack for self-repair to boost immune function and help patients

Jan. 12, 2018 | By Susan Keown (text) and Robert Hood (video) / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Jarrod Dudakov discusses his research on how the thymus regenerates, and why it's important.
Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

With advances in cancer immunotherapy splashing across headlines, the immune system’s powerful cancer assassins — T cells — have become dinner-table conversation. But hiding in plain sight behind that “T” is the organ from which they get their name and learn their craft: the thymus.

A new study published Friday in Science Immunology identifies a molecule called BMP4 that plays a key role in the thymus’s extraordinary natural ability to recover from damage.

In this video, Dr. Jarrod Dudakov of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of the study’s leaders, talks about the importance of the thymus, the discoveries he and his colleagues have made about how it regenerates, and the team’s next steps. The researchers hope to translate their work into new therapies to improve the function of the immune system in old age and make immunotherapies more effective.

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Science to watch in 2018: From immunotherapy to gene therapy, big data to new tech

Fred Hutch experts lend their predictions for the coming year’s advances

Jan. 12, 2018 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Animated illustration of a fortune tellers' crystal ball with science topics highlighted

Fred Hutch researchers lent their predictions for science to watch in 2018.

Illustration by Kim Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

2017 was a banner year for cancer and other medical research in the U.S. Two different types of engineered cell therapies were approved to treat cancer. The first gene editing experiment in a human body was performed. And initiatives kicked off to help scientists share and harness massive amounts of data to accelerate discovery.

As 2018 kicks off, we asked experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center what advances to watch for in the coming year.

The scientists aren’t psychic, they warned us. But they’ve got their ears to the ground in their respective fields and can see trends on the horizon.

Cancer immunotherapy, precision oncology and gene therapies will continue to see rapid advances on the clinical and research fronts, driven by leaps in new technology and big data.

Other topics we’ll be keeping tabs on? The rising costs of health care in the face of health insurance fluctuations, promising infectious disease research, and new ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle and lower cancer risk.

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Remembering Dr. Eddie Méndez

Hutch friends and colleagues recall brilliant physician-scientist and ‘bright, shining star’

Jan. 11, 2018 | By Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Eddie Mendez

Dr. Eddie Mendez dedicated his career to improving treatment for head-and-neck cancer patients.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Chris Kemp still remembers vividly the cold, dark December morning six years ago when he, Dr. Eduardo Méndez and their collaborators received the call from the National Cancer Institute, informing them that their grant had been funded. The team had proposed to combine high-throughput functional screening and genomic analysis to improve cancer drug discovery.

“I was pessimistic. … Eddie was hugely optimistic. He said, ‘We’re in the house!’ The next five years were magical, research-wise,” recalled Kemp, who studies tumor formation and precision oncology approaches at Fred Hutch.

From this grant and collaboration sprung a new drug target for patients with difficult-to-treat head-and-neck cancer, and a clinical trial testing a drug that made some patients’ inoperable tumors melt away.

Méndez, who passed away Friday from cancer, surrounded by his close-knit family, left a lifesaving legacy that will carry on through his patients, his colleagues and his visionary cancer research. He was 45.

He specialized in treating head-and-neck cancer, an often disfiguring and debilitating disease. It was his mission to save lives and spare patients as many negative effects as possible, whether through spearheading minimally invasive robotic surgery for these tumors (he was the first in Washington state to perform such surgery), or through tirelessly seeking new and improved treatments in his laboratory at Fred Hutch.

“There are hundreds of cancer patients that I know of who are alive today because of Eddie. They received the gift of life from him,” Seattle Cancer Care Alliance colleague and radiation oncologist Dr. Upendra Parvathaneni wrote in an email. “I’ll always cherish the time we were blessed to spend together. During his brief life span Eddie achieved what most would struggle to do in many lifetimes.”

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Could a prostate cancer drug save lives from radiation injury?

Early research shows potential for approved hormone-blocking drug to protect from deadly effects of nuclear blast

Jan. 9, 2018 | By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service

Graphic animation of radiation symbol and cells, with waves emanating out from symbol

A new study used a hormone-blocking prostate cancer drug called degarelix to save the lives of mice exposed to a deadly level of radiation. Could it do the same for people caught in a nuclear blast?

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Could a prostate cancer drug save lives from the deadly radiation of a nuclear blast?

That’s an open question now thanks to the results of a new study using a hormone-blocking drug called degarelix (Firmagon) to save the lives of mice exposed to a deadly level of radiation. The team’s research showed that more than two-thirds of their male mice survived after they received one dose of the approved cancer drug 24 hours after radiation exposure. In comparison, almost all irradiated mice who did not receive the drug died within three weeks due to irreversible damage to their bone marrow, which supplies the body with blood and immune cells — a “very striking difference,” said study co-leader Dr. Enrico Velardi of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Now that the group’s data are published, the team hopes to work with U.S. government authorities and the drug manufacturer on the necessary follow-up research to establish degarelix as a lifesaving treatment for people exposed to high levels of radiation, said study co-leader Dr. Jarrod Dudakov of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. If it proves itself, he said, the drug could even be included in national disaster-emergency stockpiles.

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Fred Hutch community mourns Dr. Robert W. Day

As president and director for 16 years, Day led Fred Hutch's 'momentous' move to South Lake Union

Jan. 8, 2018 | By Sabin Russell / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Robert W. Day was president and director of Fred Hutch from 1981-1997.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Dr. Robert W. Day, the longest-serving president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the leader who brought into being its campus overlooking Seattle’s South Lake Union, died in his Seattle home on Saturday of lung cancer. He was 87.

“It is a tragic loss for all of us,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland. “He was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many of us — I personally will be forever grateful to Bob for taking me under his wing when I started here three years ago. 

“He struggled with cancer for many years, but one would never have known it to see him in action. He was such an inspiration in this, as in all things, showing extraordinary strength and courage that matched his wisdom,” Gilliland said.

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