Knight Cancer Institute signal achievements of 2019

From basic research, to patient care, to impact in the community, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute has a mission to end cancer as we know it. Here’s a look back at a year of accomplishments.

Leading the way

  • OHSU ranked first in life sciences and No. 11 overall in a global index of top-performing young universities published by the journal Nature. And OHSU climbed to No. 42 in the Reuters worldwide ranking of most innovative universities, up 10 places from a year ago. “Being willing to embrace ideas that might be considered outside the mainstream has allowed us to develop new and paradigm-changing research,” said Knight Cancer Institute Director Brian Druker, M.D.
  • The International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection, or ACED, will work to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis. The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is collaborating with Cancer Research UK, the Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Manchester.
  • Two OHSU physicians – Richard Maziarz, M.D., and Eneida Nemecek, M.D., M.S., M.B.A. – serve as expert guides through CAR-T cell therapy in a feature in The New York Times sponsored by Novartis. OHSU was first in the Pacific Northwest to offer the first FDA-approved CAR-T-cell therapy, Novartis’s Kymriah. The treatment takes a patient’s immune system T cells and reprograms them to detect and destroy cancer cells.
  • OHSU and the University of Oregon are developing a joint center in biomedical data science. The partnership combines efforts at the UO’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact with those at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to detect and fight deadly forms of cancer and other diseases in a jointly operated center initially involving as many as 20 researchers and their teams.
  • OHSU experts helped lead a portfolio of studies and projects addressing the social factors that account for worse cancer outcomes among rural residents and marginalized racial and ethnic populations. Jackilen Shannon, Ph.D., M.P.H., said the papers “represent more than five years of collaboration with researchers across the country dedicated to improving cancer prevention activities and cancer outcomes for patients from all backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses.”
  • The Cascadia Data Discovery Initiative intends to make it easier for cancer researchers to work with each other’s data and analytical tools. Microsoft, a technology giant now worth more than $1 trillion, began the initiative with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In July, Microsoft announced the addition of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and three other research centers.
  • True precision in oncology demands the ability to rapidly analyze massive amounts of data. In a compelling new video for CNN’s Great Big Story, Micron Technology unveils a collaboration with the Knight Cancer Institute to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to speed progress.
Cancer survivor Beth Shia, a participant in one of the Knight Cancer Institute’s SMMART clinical trials, told her story in a video by Micron.

Delivering discoveries

  • The Knight Cancer Institute’s SMMART platform is designed to rapidly identify combinations of drugs that can stop tumors before they become drug-resistant. And it’s making a difference for people with cancer. All patients’ tumor biopsies are analyzed by methods and workflows developed specifically for SMMART. It’s finding cancer vulnerabilities that would not have been revealed by standard methods. The deep and individualized knowledge is helping doctors select unique drug combinations, repurpose approved therapies for different indications, and decide patient eligibility for clinical trials.
  • Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., shows an engineered material that replicates human bone tissue. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

    OHSU researchers have engineered a material that replicates human bone tissue with an unprecedented level of precision, from its microscopic crystal structure to its biological activity. They are using it to explore fundamental disease processes, such as the origin of metastatic tumors in bone, and as a treatment for large bone injuries. “Essentially it is a miniaturized bone in a dish that we can produce in a matter of 72 hours or less,” said biomedical engineer Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., a member of CEDAR, the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center in the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

  • Even when anti-cancer drugs appear to eliminate tumors, a resistant few malignant cells can survive and allow cancers to resume a fatal onslaught. Researchers at OHSU have revealed a previously unknown process used by breast cancer cells to shift rapidly into a drug-tolerant state – and they’ve demonstrated a successful strategy to combat it. “It’s a different way of thinking about drug resistance,” says Rosalie Sears, Ph.D., who led the research.
  • Scientists thought they understood the steps leading to acute myeloid leukemia. But one of the basic tenets in that understanding turns out to be unsound, according to research by Anupriya Agarwal, Ph.D., and others in the Knight Cancer Institute. The new findings explain why promising treatment approaches may have fallen short. Researchers led by Julia Maxson, Ph.D., have uncovered how two gene mutations act in sequence, like a one-two punch, to trigger AML, pointing the way to new targets for therapies. And Jeff Tyner, Ph.D., and colleagues have identified key gene networks and signaling pathways that cancerous cells in acute myeloid leukemia use to resist treatment with the drug venetoclax, one of a new generation of targeted therapy drugs. The discovery should help researchers find ways to overcome resistance and potentially stop the cancer long-term.
  • Palliative care is intended to bring physical, emotional and spiritual support to help people cope with serious illness. An OHSU study of 23,000 VA patients with lung cancer makes the case that appropriately timed palliative care also can help people live longer. “Palliative care shouldn’t be something that you withhold from people until the very end of their life,” said senior author Donald Sullivan, M.D., M.A, M.C.R.
  • Exercise study participant Bill Westmoreland takes part in a class in July 2019 at the Knight Cancer Research Building. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

    Drawing on the most current scientific evidence, experts have published detailed guidance for clinicians prescribing exercises that can improve daily functioning and quality of life, reduce symptoms such as cancer-related fatigue, and potentially help individuals live longer. “We now have an obligation to start moving exercise into the standard of care for cancer patients,” said Kerri Winters-Stone, Ph.D., one of the authors of the new guidance and the comprehensive review supporting it. Winters-Stone is co-leader of the Knight Cancer Institute’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program.

  • Breast cancers that emerge after a woman gives birth are significantly more likely to spread and become life-threatening. And this elevated risk endures for at least 10 years, a new study has found. “The window of increased risk extends much longer than anyone knew,” says Knight Cancer scientist Pepper Schedin, Ph.D. Among other implications, doctors may be underestimating the risk when making treatment recommendations for women diagnosed within 10 years of childbirth.
  • Tenosynovial giant cell tumor is a rare disease that slowly destroys joint cartilage and bone. OHSU’s Christopher Ryan, M.D., helped lead the study establishing the first effective drug therapy for TGCT. Surgery can help some patients but relapse rates are high and repeat surgeries largely futile. Many are not good candidates for surgery because the inflammation and abnormal growth are spread diffusely around the joint. “Until now, we haven’t had much to offer these patients,” Ryan said.
Brian Matekovich struggled for years with a rare type of tumor in his knee, but found relief in a clinical trial at OHSU that established the first effective drug therapy for the disease. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Serving the community

  • HPV, the human papilloma virus, can cause six types of cancer, and the vaccine can prevent up to 90% of those cancers. The Knight Cancer Institute’s Community Partnership Program is funding four projects to increase HPV vaccination rates in Hood River, Wasco, Crook, Benton, Multnomah counties.
  • Uma Borate, M.D., medical director of the Knight Cancer Network, at a news conference announcing the collaboration with Saint Alphonsus Cancer Institute.

    Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise signed on with OHSU for collaborative oncology care. “We will now have access to internationally renowned scientists, specialists and an entire team who can collaborate with our physicians and clinical teams to raise the level of care we provide to our patients,” Saint Alphonsus President and CEO Odette Bolano told reporters. The Catholic-affiliated nonprofit runs five hospitals and a medical group with over 70 clinic locations in Idaho and eastern Oregon.

  • Knight Cancer clinicians at Tuality/OHSU Cancer Center are the first in Oregon to offer a treatment option that will improve outcomes for patients with bladder cancer who cannot tolerate surgery or chemotherapy. Giving an inhaled mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide before and during radiation therapy enables such patients to achieve high rates of survival without chemotherapy, said Timur Mitin, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Tuality/OHSU Cancer Center.
  • CURE Program intern Diana Angeles-Ramos, 18. (OHSU/Darsen Campbell-Prissel)

    The Knight Cancer Institute hosted 25 Oregon high school students in the new Knight Scholars Program, which combines mentoring, community-based projects addressing cancer needs, and the chance to spend six weeks doing cancer research at OHSU. Another group of high school students in the Ted R. Lilley C.U.R.E. Program, and 23 college undergraduates in the Equity Research Program spent 8 weeks last summer conducting research with mentorship from Knight Cancer and other OHSU scientists. These internships are part of OHSU’s commitment to support students from communities underrepresented in science and medicine.

  • New facilities opened on Portland’s South Waterfront, both designed in close collaboration with patients, families and employees. OHSU Center for Health & Healing Building 2 and Gary & Christine Rood Family Pavilion on Portland’s South Waterfront exemplify an integrated, holistic approach to health care.
  • The Department of Radiation Medicine added three new physicians to extend services to the residents of Roseburg, as part of an agreement with the Roseburg Community Cancer Center. “I am incredibly excited about this opportunity to enhance radiation oncology care in Roseburg and strengthen our connection with the Roseburg Community Cancer Center,” said Charles R. Thomas, M.D., chair of the Department of Radiation Medicine.
  • The Columbia Memorial Hospital-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative performed its first stereotactic body radiation therapy procedure in October, establishing treatment capacity previously not available in the North Coast region. SBRT administers a high dose of radiation using various intensities aimed at different angles, minimizing damage to healthy tissue. It uses 3D imaging and computational techniques to localize and precisely target tumors, and systems to position and keep the patient in place during therapy.
  • Two new conferences co-sponsored by the Knight Cancer Institute support patients, families, caregivers. The Pancreatic Cancer Roadmap conference provides updates on early detection, new treatments, nutrition and muscle maintenance, where to find resources, and more. At the first annual Integrative Oncology Conference, patients and caregivers learn about mindfulness exercises, yoga, and other techniques and support services to help people during and after cancer therapy. Both events are free.
  • A new series of science talks produced by the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute debuted in 2019. Researchers, clinicians and patients are going onstage to present interconnected stories of discovery and determination. The one-hour shows conclude with a question-and-answer session. Attendance is free.
Bree Mitchell, Ph.D., Chris Corless, M.D., Ph.D., Brian Druker, M.D., and Hai Pham, D.M.D, field questions from the audience at Knight School. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

Advancing award-winning work

  • Brian Druker, M.D. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

    Knight Cancer Institute Director Brian Druker, M.D., received Thailand’s most prestigious medical prize – the Prince Mahidol Award – at a ceremony in Bangkok last January. And the next month he was named a named a winner of the Sjöberg Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Both honored his work developing the targeted therapy drug imatinib (Gleevec), which transformed the outlook for people with chronic myeloid leukemia.

  • Lara Davis, M.D., is one of ten outstanding mid-career clinical researchers honored by the National Cancer Institute. Recipients of the Cancer Clinical Investigator Team Leadership Award receive partial salary support for two years. The following week, Davis received a national St. Baldrick’s Scholar Award that will help fund her osteosarcoma research for three years. Davis is seeking less toxic treatments for kids with osteosarcoma, a cancer that arises in bone.
  • The Knight Cancer Institute’s associate director of basic research, Lisa M. Coussens, Ph.D., is among the 22 new fellows of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy. Her pioneering studies of the tumor microenvironment have helped reveal the roles of immune cells in promoting tumor progression.
  • For significant contributions to cancer research, particularly discoveries about the signaling that controls cancer growth, invasion and metastasis, Sara Courtneidge, Ph.D., was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Hem-onc instructor Ted Braun, M.D., Ph.D., is among 13 from across the U.S. and Canada chosen for Scholar Awards by the American Society of Hematology. Braun, who is studying the interplay of genes frequently mutated in acute myeloid leukemia, will receive $100,000 over a two- to three-year period.
  • The Cancer Research Institute selected Amanda Lund, Ph.D., as one of five winners of the inaugural Lloyd J. Old STAR award, which gives mid-career scientists $1.25 million in long-term funding for the freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research.
  • OHSU’s first Soros Fellow is an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Druker lab. Sunil Joshi is one of 30 chosen from more than 1,700 applicants across the U.S. The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans selects graduate students for their potential to make significant contributions to society, culture, and scholarship.