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Fusion venture branches out into cancer therapy

Cancer therapy
An artist’s conception shows how a beam of neutrons could be directed at a tumor in a patient’s head, shown in a cutaway view. (TAE Life Sciences Illustration)

TAE Technologies, the California-based fusion energy company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has spawned a spinoff focusing on a novel type of cancer therapy.

The spinoff, TAE Life Sciences, is a majority-owned subsidiary of TAE Technologies and will take advantage of the company’s accelerator-based beam technology.

In its quest to tame nuclear fusion, TAE Technologies has developed a high-intensity beam system that shoots energetic particles at clouds of plasma to boost stability and performance.

TAE Life Sciences aims to use similar beams for an application known as boron neutron capture therapy, or BNCT. The technique involves injecting a drug containing non-radioactive boron into a cancer patient’s tumor, and then shooting a neutron beam at the tumor.

The boron atoms absorb the neutrons, resulting in a localized radiation effect that kills the tumor cells while preserving non-cancerous tissue.

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Former VP Joe Biden comes out swinging for science

Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden, shown on a huge video screen, addresses the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. (GeekWire Photo)

AUSTIN, Texas — Joe Biden may no longer be vice president, but he’s still leading the charge for his cancer moonshot, and for science funding as well.

“The United States government, at this point in our development, should be doubling and tripling down on investment in pure research across the board,” Biden said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That line drew sympathetic applause from the hundreds of scientists and educators who turned out to see the 75-year-old statesman.

Biden is said to be considering a presidential run in 2020, and if that’s the case, his views on science could well be part of the platform.

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How fighting cancer will extend tech frontiers

Gary Gilliland
Gary Gilliland, president of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, fields questions during the GeekWire Summit with moderators Clare McGrane and Alan Boyle. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

The fight against cancer isn’t just about drugs and genetics. It’s also about wearable devices, health-savvy chatbots, machine learning and one of the biggest challenges that cloud computing will ever face.

Gary Gilliland, president and director of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, laid out a roadmap for the challenges ahead — and the commercial opportunities — today during a fireside chat at the 2017 GeekWire Summit.

“We’re not a venture firm,” Gilliland told a packed house at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel. “We don’t intend to be. It actually doesn’t support our mission the way we think about it. But boy, do we need partners.”

One of the reasons for that has to do with the masses of genomic data that need to be collected in order to develop the personalized therapies of the future.

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Fred Hutch’s chief enlists techies to fight cancer

Gary Gillilland
Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, stands by his prediction that most cancers will be curable by 2025. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The president and director of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Gary Gilliland, is bringing big-data experts on board to make good on his controversial prediction that there could be cures and therapies for “most, if not all, human cancers” by 2025.

Those experts include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Mike Clayville, a vice president at Amazon Web Services, both of whom serve on Fred Hutch’s board of trustees.

Gilliland, one of the featured speakers at the upcoming GeekWire Summit, says “big data is going to be hugely important for the next steps” in the fight against cancer, which will focus on leveraging a huge amount of biological data to personalize cancer treatments.

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Smartphone selfie system seeks cancer signs

Smartphone selfie system
A 3-D-printed viewing box holds a smartphone in place to take a picture of the user’s eyes. The BiliScreen app analyzes the eye image to look for signs of jaundice, which could point to pancreatic cancer. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

University of Washington researchers have created a smartphone app that can let users screen themselves for pancreatic cancer and other diseases by taking a selfie.

But not just any selfie.

The BiliScreen app is designed to focus in on the whites of your eyes. If your whites have an overly yellowish tinge, that could suggest you have increased levels of a compound known as bilirubin. That’s a sign of jaundice, and also one of the earliest indicators of pancreatic cancer.

The first effects on the whites of a person’s eyes, also known as the sclera, are too subtle to be noticeable to the naked eye. Heightened levels typically show up in blood tests, but the UW team says BiliScreen can serve as an effective, low-cost, low-impact screening tool.

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Microsoft moonshots aim to debug cancer

Cancer moonshot
Microsoft’s “cancer moonshot” effort aims to program cells like computers. (Credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft researchers are doing a bug bash on cancer, complete with software code names like “Project Hanover.”

Some of them are actually drilling down into our genetic code, looking for ways to reprogram the immune system to combat cancer cells more effectively.

“If you can do computing with biological systems, then you can transfer what we’ve learned in traditional computing into medical or biotechnology applications,” Microsoft’s Neil Dalchau says in the company’s in-depth report about its cancer moonshots.

Others are enlisting the power of cloud computing to identify which treatment would work best for a particular cancer patient, based on his or her personalized medical profile.

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Cancer center puts the art of science on display

Image: Brain tumor cell
“Sunrise” is a microscopic image of a dividing human brain tumor cell. The red lines are tubulins, which act as guides for the transport of chromosomes along the cell’s mitotic spindle. The bright spots are kinetochores, which promote attachments between the chromosomes and the spindle. Researchers at Patrick Paddison’s Fred Hutch lab have found that kinetochore regulation is altered in brain tumors. (Credit: Paddison Lab / Fred Hutch)

Cancer researchers have to deal with some of nature’s ugliest diseases, but they do find bits of beauty along the way – and that beauty is the focus of an art walk presented by Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Aug. 25.

The event features scientific images that were captured by researchers at Fred Hutch, and will be put on display from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the Mundie Courtyard on the research center’s South Lake Union Campus, at 1100 Fairview Ave. N.

One picture focuses in on a single dividing tumor cell from a human brain, glowing red with bright blue spots called kinetochores. Another shows a burst of brain cells in the cerebral cortex of a developing mouse, illuminated in blue, green and fuchsia.

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Juno revises, resumes cancer trial after deaths

Image: Juno lab
Inside Juno Therapeutics’ lab, employees work with a patient’s genetically engineered T-cells and prepare them for infusion. (Credit: Juno Therapeutics)

Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics says it’s resuming a clinical trial of its immunotherapy treatment, a week after the Food and Drug Administration ordered a hold due to the deaths of three patients.

The FDA lifted its hold on the Phase II clinical trial for Juno’s first product, known as JCAR015, after the company removed a chemotherapy drug known as fludarabine from the treatment protocol. The deaths resulted from cerebral edema, or brain swelling, which was thought to have been caused by a toxic reaction to a drug combination including fludarabine.

Fludarabine was added to the pre-conditioning treatment regimen only recently. A different drug, known as cytoxan or cyclophosphamide, will continue to be used.

Now that the hold has been lifted, patients can once again be enrolled in the trial.

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Cancer gene research wins White House honors

University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King gets set to receive her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday. (Credit: National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)
University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King gets set to receive her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday. (Credit: National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)

A quarter-century after her discovery of the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, University of Washington geneticist Mary-Claire King has received the nation’s highest scientific honor – and high praise from President Barack Obama – for her achievements.

King’s status as a winner of the National Medal of Science was announced last December, but after some delays on account of weather, Obama finally put the gold medal around her neck during a White House ceremony on Thursday.

The president said “every single American should be grateful” for the career path that King, 70, chose back in the late 1960s when she was starting out in college.

“At a time when most scientists believed that cancer was caused by viruses, she relentlessly pursued her hunch that certain cancers were linked to inherited genetic mutations,” Obama said. “This self-described ‘stubborn’ scientist kept going until she proved herself right. Seventeen years of work later, Mary-Claire discovered a single gene that predisposes women to breast cancer.”

The discovery has had a huge impact on cancer diagnosis and prevention, highlighted by actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy in 2013 because she carried the BRCA1 gene.

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Gates and Bezos invest in cancer testing venture

Image: Sequencer
Illumina’s gene sequencers are already being used to study cancer cells, and the new venture known as Grail is expected to take the field to the next level. (Credit: Illumina)

One of the giants of gene sequencing, Illumina, has spun off a new $100 million company called Grail to create an all-in-one blood test for cancer – and its investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

The name reflects the view that such a blood test is a “holy grail” for cancer diagnosis. Grail would use ultra-deep gene sequencing to look for the characteristic nucleic acids that are shed into the blood by tumors. Those traces are known as circulating tumor DNA, or ctDNA.

If the technology is perfected, it could offer a non-invasive way to find out if a patient has cancer well before symptoms appear. That would better the chances for treatment.

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