Winter 2007

Tackling the tough problems

New breast-cancer research set in motion by Thomsen fellowship

By Christi Ball Loso

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Mikal and Lynn Thomsen understand all too well what investigators need to push the boundaries of science.

That's why the Thomsen Family Postdoctoral Fellowship is the first ever at the Center to fund the same scientist for three years in a row. Funding of Dr. Cameron Turtle's breast-cancer immunotherapy work began last July.

Turtle, who grew up and attended medical school in Sydney, Australia, had spent two years in clinical research with the Hutchinson Center's Dr. Stanley Riddell, whose lab investigates strategies to target leukemia with T-cells and avoid graft-vs.-host disease after stem-cell transplants. More recently, the lab expanded its research into the potential to use of T-cells to treat breast cancer.

Turtle quickly earned a reputation for dedication and a bold yet methodical approach to scientific problems. When Riddell learned of the availability of funds through the Thomsen fellowship, he asked colleagues to join him in urging Turtle to apply.

"Cameron's background was in transplantation, but we convinced him to turn his attentions to breast cancer a very challenging tumor where immunotherapy is concerned," Riddell said. "Breast-cancer research has tended to focus on easier problems, whereas Cameron has demonstrated that he will tackle the tough ones."

The fellowship will allow Turtle to focus on whether immunotherapy the treatment of disease by strengthening the body's immune system could prove an effective approach against breast cancer.

"Such projects involve fundamental biology and may take years to lead to an outcome," Turtle said. "But we have quite a bit of evidence that this particular work will yield results and improve our understanding of long-term immune memory against cancer."

"The fellowship is fantastic. It's an opportunity for me to take on this specific area of research without worrying about funding for the next three years," Turtle said.

The fellowship may also give Turtle time to generate enough preliminary data to qualify for a larger federal grant such as those given through the National Cancer Institute.

According to Riddell, Turtle's work should at least begin to answer the immunotherapy question, but the researcher's larger aspirations lie in the potential for clinical applications.

"It will absolutely be paradigm-changing if we find we can treat breast cancer with immune cells. It would be a new and potentially highly effective way to treat the disease," he said.


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