Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center already has dozens of scientists working on infectious diseases, including COVID-19 — but the center’s president and director, Thomas Lynch, says the research community is going to have to kick things up a notch to head off future pandemics.
His prescription? Create institutions like Fred Hutch that are devoted to virology.
“I feel strongly about this,” Lynch, a veteran medical doctor and researcher who took on the Hutch’s top post less than four months ago, said today during an online conversation presented via Zoom for GeekWire members. “I think virology needs a ‘cancer centers’ program, OK?”
Lynch pointed out that the National Cancer Institute has designated dozens of comprehensive cancer centers, including Fred Hutch, to conduct research into all aspects of the disease, from its molecular and genetic roots to its behavioral effects.
“We need the same thing in virology,” he told GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop. “Because guess what’s going to happen? In two years, we’re going to be over COVID. We’re going to be through COVID. But there’s going to be another coronavirus. Five years later, there’s going to be another Ebola virus. There’ll be more retroviruses. The viruses will be with us as long as humanity is around, and we need the ability to rapidly respond.”
The Seattle area already has a vibrant community of virologists and epidemiologists — at Fred Hutch and other institutions including the University of Washington, the Infectious Disease Research Institute, Seattle Children’s and the Institute for Disease Modeling. But Lynch said “we need to be doing this together in a coordinated way,” and creating a nationwide network of virus research centers would help.
In the meantime, Lynch isn’t just waiting around: He pointed to the Hutch’s effort to create an outpatient clinical trial center, so that studies relating to COVID-19 can be expanded beyond hospital settings.
One research project, known as CovidWatch, is monitoring people who are at risk of contracting COVID-19, including workers at grocery stores and homeless shelters. Another clinical trial, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, involves testing Fred Hutch’s own employees as they return to work at the South Lake Union HQ, to look for signs of the virus or the antibodies sparked by an infection.
“We’re using that to guide bringing people back,” Lynch said. “Our strong hope is to let everybody back within the next month — everybody back who’s doing laboratory research.”
Lynch said it’ll take a while longer to bring other employees back to the office. “We have people who can work remotely,” he said, “and they should, because it reduces the number of people using public transport, the number of people out in the public that can possibly transmit community-based virus.”
Among other highlights from today’s talk:
- Like many other experts, Lynch sees rapid and reliable testing as key to containing coronavirus while a vaccine is developed. “We need something as simple and accurate as a urine pregnancy test,” he said. “If you had something like that, you could screen people before they went to, say, T-Mobile Park to see the Mariners. You could screen people on the way in, and you would know that it was safe for 40,000 people to root for the Mariners there.”
- Lynch said the pandemic’s effect on Fred Hutch’s operating budget is a “huge issue,” as it has been for UW Medicine. This month, Fred Hutch announced a $500,000 grant from Bank of America to support COVID-19 relief, and reworked its Obliteride fundraising event to conform to the new normal for social distancing. “We’re right in the middle of looking at what the challenges will be for an academic cancer center next year,” Lynch said.
- To cope with the craziness of the coronavirus outbreak, Lynch said he tries to exercise every day. One of his favored routines is taking a daily run — while wearing a mask as a public health measure. “I’m a big fan of masks,” he said. “I think masks turned out to make a bigger difference than we imagined they might in the very beginning.”
- Lynch marveled at how researchers have revved up the process of reporting findings about coronavirus, through preprint publications as well as accelerated peer review. He pointed specifically to Fred Hutch epidemiologist Trevor Bedford, who was among the first researchers to recognize how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was spreading through the United States. “In the past, the way someone like Trevor would communicate would only be through papers in established epidemiology journals,” Lynch said. “Now Trevor’s main way of communicating is through his Twitter feed.“
- When asked about the Seattle area’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, Lynch said he was impressed to see how tech companies including Amazon and Microsoft have been working together with biotech companies — including Adaptive Biotechnologies, which was spun out from Fred Hutch more than a decade ago. “That’s something I think we need to see more of with time,” Lynch said. “One of the things I’d love to see come out of the Allen Institute and the Hutch and the UW and Seattle Children’s and the places doing science in Seattle is the creation of more of these companies that are on that interface between tech and bio. I think that offers promise for the future.”
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