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February 3, 2004 • Volume 1 / Number 5 E-Mail This Document  |  Download PDF  |  Bulletin Archive/Search  |  Subscribe

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A Conversation with Dr. Lee Hartwell

Highlighting the Potential of Advanced Technologies in Early Cancer Detection

Dr. Lee Hartwell Dr. Lee Hartwell received the Alfred G. Knudson award for research in cancer genetics at the NCI Intramural Investigator Retreat on Jan. 16, 2004, in Adelphi, Md. Dr. Hartwell, who is best known for his work on characterizing the complex cellular mechanisms that regulate cell division, received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001. In addition to his contributions to basic scientific research, as director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., over the past six years, Dr. Hartwell has focused on supporting the development of practical interventions to help reduce the death and suffering of cancer patients.

As co-chair of the National Cancer Advisory Board subcommittee on advanced technologies, Dr. Hartwell is working with NCI to develop strategies to harness these new technologies to make progress against cancer. Advanced technologies, such as nanotechnology, imaging, and proteomics, are demonstrating exciting potential. In his acceptance speech for the Knudson award, Dr. Hartwell emphasized his particular commitment to applying such technologies to improve the early detection of cancer.

The benefits of early cancer detection are well known. For example, the 5-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is nearly 90 percent for early stage local disease as compared with 9 percent for later stage disease that has spread to distant organs. Using early biomarkers, scientists from Fred Hutchinson have improved survival rates for esophageal cancer and chronic myeloid leukemia.

Dr. Hartwell highlighted in his acceptance speech the promise of one particular advanced technology: clinical proteomics. He believes that scientists will be able to detect cancer at its earliest stages by taking advantage of largely untapped resources in serum and plasma - protein fragments either free or attached to large carrier proteins.

Scientists estimate that between 100,000 and 1 million proteins and/or protein fragments are present in blood. Of these, fewer than 150 are currently used for diagnostic purposes in FDA-approved tests. However, early clinical proteomic studies are promising. Researchers using mass spectrometry and other analytical tools can distinguish the plasma protein patterns in breast, prostate, and ovarian cancer patients from patterns observed in normal individuals. In order to capitalize on this potential, Dr. Hartwell advocates developing a transdisciplinary network of researchers to systematically identify peptides and proteins critical to cancer processes using a model organism.