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Sunday, December 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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$10 million donated to 'The Hutch'

Seattle Times business reporter

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center


Located: Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood

Founded: 1972

Employees: 2,500

Annual budget: $240 million, mostly from federal grants and contracts. It wins more money from the National Institutes of Health than any other free-standing research institution.

Mission: Basic biological research, cancer treatment, public health

In the largest single gift ever to The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a Silicon Valley Internet baron has committed $10 million to create tests that spot cancer at its earliest stages, before it spreads, when it's most treatable.

Don Listwin, a former No. 2 executive at the Internet equipment maker Cisco Systems who now runs a wireless-software company, announced the donation last night at the annual black-tie Hutch Holiday Gala. Listwin, 44, has had a personal stake in early-detection research since his mother died two years ago from ovarian cancer.

The Nobel Prize-winning president of "The Hutch," Dr. Lee Hartwell, said the money will be used to create tools to detect cancer by spotting the signature cancer proteins thought to be floating in the blood.

The Hutch has a history of stressing early detection, but Hartwell said it is taking on new urgency because patients and donors demand it. Despite the federal government's three-decade-old war on cancer, and billions in investment from pharmaceutical companies, only about 10 percent of patients survive when cancer is found late. When the disease is discovered early, about 90 percent survive.

One thing scientists know for sure, Hartwell said, is that when cancer is detected early, tumors can be removed surgically or milder treatments can knock them down.

"For me, it's been kind of an awakening," Hartwell said.

"I spent 40 years trying to understand the cancer cell. The fundamental assumption was if we understand it, we'll cure it. We've learned a lot. I could bend your ear for hours. But it has not translated into much in the way of improvements for patients.

"I've come to a different view of the world. It's not in drugs and therapies — they will be helpful — but the greatest need is in diagnostics," he said.

Recruiting specialists

The way The Hutch will tackle diagnostics, Hartwell said, is by recruiting scientists from multiple disciplines to team with technology experts at Microsoft, Intel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

They will develop sensitive high-speed instruments and software to identify and measure hundreds of thousands of proteins in the blood. Experiments will then determine which are signs of early cancer.

Hartwell said the time is ripe for the initiative because with the genome in hand, researchers have the entire parts list of human biology in a 3-billion-letter string — the parts that make proteins that do the body's work.

Some early genetic tests already exist, such as one that can spot a particular protein in some breast-cancer patients. It also determines whether those patients are candidates for Herceptin, which targets the protein. This year, The Hutch discovered a new, more precise protein that is a sign of early ovarian cancer.

Hartwell predicts it will take two to five years for a breakthrough in technology to measure multitudes of three-dimensional proteins that arise from genes. He expects it will take five years for blood tests that benefit patients — a quicker timeline than for new drugs.

Hartwell thinks the blood has many more cancer proteins — some that suggest susceptibility for cancer — that need to be cataloged.

The approach has its challenges. Less-proven ideas like Hartwell's depend on philanthropy, which isn't nearly as plentiful as government grants.

In science and medicine, there is huge momentum for traditional anti-cancer tactics. If early diagnostics work, doctors will need to be trained be more oriented toward prevention.

Pushing boundaries

Dr. Amanda Paulovich, whom Hartwell recruited to run the new initiative, said squeezing the meaningful information out of trillions of cells to find hundreds of thousands of complex proteins pushes the boundaries of technology's capabilities.

Paulovich also sees ethical issues to be resolved, because the devices may provide information society doesn't understand. Once doctors have information showing tiny concentrations of cancer proteins developing in the blood — a normal part of aging — how will doctors know whether the patient needs serious treatment or could be left alone? She said she worries about causing patients unnecessary alarm.

To avoid that, Paulovich said, blood tests need to become part of a cancer doctor's tool kit and should be double-checked by imaging tests like MRIs.

Listwin, the donor, also challenged the region's leaders to ante up another $2 million. Ultimately, he said, he hopes his donation is seed money for a $100 million long-term fund-raising effort. He wants The Hutch to become one of the world centers for accurate, genetic-based blood tests.

Listwin found out about The Hutch two years ago.

"I really think The Hutch and Lee Hartwell (could) change how we think about cancer," he said. "If we focus on early detection, we can save thousands of lives."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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