They’re Here To Save Your Life
Meet eight doctors who continue to make Seattle a hotbed of cancer research and treatment in the face of overwhelming odds
By Rob Smith
June 23, 2022
Madeleine Smithberg says she feels as if she’s waiting “for the world’s worst acid trip to kick in.”
Smithberg, a cocreator of “The Daily Show,” who moved to Bellevue from New York in 2018, is taking steroids to help treat the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in March. She recently began a 24-week regimen of chemotherapy that won’t end until around Thanksgiving.
Yet Smithberg, who launched her popular YouTube channel “Mad In The Kitchen” at the beginning of the pandemic, considers herself “the luckiest person on the planet” because of her quality of care. She calls her oncologist, Dr. Eileen Consorti, director of Overlake Medical Center’s breast surgery department, “not just a rock star. She’s a superstar.”
“When she first examined me, she took a blank piece of paper and drew cartoons. She’s drawing the ducts and the type of cancer. Nothing has ever been so clear to me,” says Smithberg, who resisted urges from friends to move back to Manhattan for treatment because of the resources Seattle has to offer. “She’s got a brain like a sponge and all she wants is knowledge. She’s this incredible human who has emerged in my life, but it’s not just her. It’s everyone here.”
Seattle has long been an established global leader in cancer research and treatment, especially in the areas of immunotherapy (the power of immune cells to eliminate cancer), molecular diagnosis and gene therapy. The new partnership between powerhouses Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Seattle Children’s and UW Medicine into a unified adult cancer research and care center makes the city even more formidable. The deal unites Fred Hutch and the Cancer Care Alliance into a single organization clinically integrated with UW Medicine and its cancer program.
The new entity “will help us redefine cancer research and care,” says Kathy Surace-Smith, board chairperson of the newly merged organization, now called Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. “Our collaboration will help us accelerate lifesaving discoveries and improve outcomes for patients with cancer in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.”
Here’s a look at eight top medical professionals who’ve spent their lives working to treat and eradicate cancers of all types, in the process helping create a health care cluster known around the globe.
Surgeon & Survivor
Dr. Eileen Consorti As a breast cancer survivor, Dr. Eileen Consorti understands the fear and confusion that accompanies a diagnosis. As medical director of the breast surgery department at Bellevue’s Overlake Medical Center, she has never been more optimistic about saving lives.
Consorti took the job at Overlake just last December after spending the better part of two decades in the Bay Area. She ran her own private practice, taught at the University of California – San Francisco School of Medicine and served as chair of surgery for the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.
She was lured here for one simple reason: Overlake’s affiliation with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where she works closely with John Russell, director of cancer care at SCCA and Overlake.
“Seattle’s interests are in solving cancer issues. The hospital systems are geared toward supporting the cancer networks,” says Consorti, who has also practiced in Houston. “We are winning and we are getting ahead here.”
Consorti’s clinical interests include breast cancer genomics, new oncological approaches to treatment, and community education on the importance of screening and early detection. She says patients tend to be more involved in their care in high-resource regions like Seattle.
In partnership with the Cancer Care Alliance, Overlake is in the process of establishing a high-risk screening clinic in coming months. Consorti and Russell have already hired a genetics cancer counselor who’s helping develop the clinic.
“It’s making sure these patients get genetically tested that have high-risk factors, such as family members with certain cancers, which could tip us to knowing about genetic mutations that predispose them to various cancers,” Consorti says. “Can we cure cancer? Can we totally eradicate it? Probably not. But early detection saves lives.”
From Pipeline to Product
Dr. Phil Greenberg Internationally recognized cancer immunotherapy expert Dr. Phil Greenberg understands that medical research is meaningless until it’s made available to those who need it.
Greenberg, who has been at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center since the 1970s, works with companies to translate lab discoveries into therapies. He is cofounder of Affini-T Therapeutics, a cell therapy company spun out of Fred Hutch. The company, which treats solid tumors, recently raised $175 million in its initial round of financing. For the first time ever, Fred Hutch participated in a fundraising round.
“One of the wonderful things in the Seattle medical community, and at the Hutch in particular, has been this sense of community and sharing and helping,” Greenberg says. “There’s been a lot of ways in which the Hutch has been constructed to essentially foster that and not create dominant individual scientists. If you want to expand, you expand by collaborating.”
Greenberg is professor and head, program in immunology, clinical research division at Fred Hutch. He also holds the Rona Jaffe Foundation Endowed Chair. He was recently elected president of the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research.
His early work focused on blood cancers but has expanded to solid tumors. Specifically, he’s interested in developing and testing strategies to genetically reprogram a patient’s T cells to target certain cancers, including acute myeloid leukemia as well as ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Culturally, cancer is too often viewed as a monolithic entity, he says. Various cancers behave in many different ways, making a single “cure” virtually impossible.
The National Institutes of Health noted last year that overall cancer death rates continued to decline in men and women across all racial and ethnic groups. Lung and melanoma cancer deaths have declined considerably, but deaths related to some other cancers aren’t slowing as they once were.
Greenberg is philosophical about it all.
“People have always said that you’re in cancer research to put yourself out of business. None of us have put ourselves out of business,” he says. “That’s just a painful reality that we have to deal with. But the truth is, there’s been enormous progress.”
Dr. Denise Galloway knows you can teach an old body new tricks.
Galloway, who leads the Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center at Fred Hutch and also holds the Paul Stephanus Memorial Endowed Chair, is an expert in how viruses can cause cancer. Her research linking human papillomavirus with cervical cancer helped pave the way to an HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine.
Only about a dozen of the more than 100 kinds of HPV can cause cancer.
“If you can make something that will trick the immune system into thinking it’s seen one of those viruses and it makes an antibody response, you can prevent infection and therefore prevent all the diseases that follow,” says Galloway, who has also studied a virus that sometimes causes a rare skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. “In our case, it was fairly simple because the virus just has a protein coat, not the complicated proteins that HIV does.”
Simply put, Galloway says she spends her days constructing molecules and agents that have therapeutic and practical uses. She’s frustrated that so much of that innovative lab work never reaches the people it could help. Research shows that HPV vaccinations can prevent more than 90% of cancers caused by the virus as well as abnormal cells that can lead to cancer.
“Why is it that you make a vaccine and people in this country won’t take it? And people in the developing world who really need it can’t access it?” she asks. “It’s just frustrating to think that we can do so much in the lab but have gone away from trusting science and scientists.”
She adds that there has never been enough emphasis on prevention, especially in clinical trials.
“It’s better not to get the cancer than to try to cure it,” she says.
Flexing Her Labs
Dr. Elizabeth Lawlor While researching pediatric solid tumors in her lab as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, Dr. Elizabeth Lawlor was well aware of Seattle’s reputation as an inventive center for cancer research and treatment.
When she learned of an opportunity at Seattle Children’s, she jumped at the chance — even though it meant moving during the early, uncertain days of the pandemic. She brought her Lawlor Lab with her and now serves as associate director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s.
“Where can I have the most impact on pediatric cancer? There are very few places in the country, if not the world, where you have all that expertise coming together in one place,” Lawlor says, citing the development of sophisticated models to study cancer and emerging technologies such as bioinformatics and computational biology. “It’s a really powerful structure that allows for really easy integration and good cross-institution collaboration.”
Lawlor and her lab are particularly interested in unraveling the mysteries of Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive bone and soft tissue tumor. Her research is informed by technologies developed at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington. She notes that half of Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnoses occur in people between the ages of 10 and 20.
Lawlor frequently fields calls from colleagues across the country, most recently from a doctor in Detroit who had read some of her research and was interested in working with her.
“It happens all the time,” she adds. “One of the reasons we’ve been so successful in advancing cures for kids with cancer is collaboration, pure and simple.”
She remains optimistic that research that emanates here can cure many cancers. Other patients can increasingly be treated as chronic diseases, much like AIDS and HIV.
“I think that depending on the type of cancer that you’re talking about, living with it is a reality that we should be striving for,” Lawlor says. “But all of us in pediatric cancers still are striving for cures rather than living with cancer, just because you’re talking about 50, 60, 70 years. Cure has to be the goal.”
She’s optimistic she will get there.
Big Screen Promoter
Dr. E. Gabriela Chiorean She leads clinical trials to discover new therapies to treat pancreatic, colorectal and other gastrointestinal cancers. She has identified new chemotherapies, immunotherapies and targeted drugs to treat those cancers. She aims to identify biomarkers of cancer, such as molecules in the blood, which could be developed into a minimally invasive test for early detection.
Yet Dr. E. Gabriela Chiorean says the most important cancer-fighting weapons boil down to one simple strategy: prevention.
“We see less cancer,” she says. “And part of that is because of screening. And that’s the key.”
Chiorean is clinical director of gastrointestinal medical oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and UW Medicine. She is also a professor at UW Medicine and a professor in the clinical research division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Some of Chiorean’s work has resulted in several treatment options for pancreatic, gastric and colon cancers. It’s all about “baby steps because cancer has many different stages and many different flavors.”
Chiorean, who splits her time between research and seeing patients, says about 30% of the people she sees come from out of state because of the city’s reputation for cutting-edge medicine, starting with Fred Hutch. If possible, she urges anyone, anywhere who has received a cancer diagnosis to see an expert associated with the institution, which was named the first-ever National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer care organization in 1973.
“We are in constant communication with researchers around the country and around the globe to develop these new cancer treatments and participate in research,” says Chiorean, who became interested in medicine as a teenager after her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. “(Other places) treat cancer cancers just the same as us, but maybe they’re not as engaged in research quite at the same level as we do at the university and at Fred Hutch. I think that’s what distinguishes our city.”
Dr. Petros Grivas Look at Dr. Petros Grivas’ long list of accomplishments and it’s not difficult to understand why he calls “research” his favorite topic.
Grivas holds several positions at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, UW Medicine and Fred Hutch, but his work as clinical director at UW Medicine’s Genitourinary Cancers Program and as an associate professor in the clinical research division at the Hutch excite him most.
Grivas, who previously led the bladder/urothelial cancer program at Cleveland Clinic, moved to Seattle about four years ago. He is heavily involved in the advanced research of evolving treatments for several cancer types. He most recently was lead researcher on the Javelin Bladder 100 trial that resulted in FDA approval of a new treatment therapy for a type of bladder cancer. Findings were published in the prestigious “New England Journal of Medicine.”
He sees patients twice a week and is heavily involved in clinical trials as he seeks new discoveries for difficult-to-treat genitourinary cancers, or cancers of the urinary system in men and women, as well as reproductive organ cancer in women. The best way to beat cancer is understanding why it happens in the first place.
“We’re lucky enough to have a number of trials where we had a leading role,” says Grivas, who notes that Seattle is known in the worldwide medical community not just for exceptional patient care but also access to clinical trials. “We have an impact globally to change the way disease is being treated.”
Grivas, who has also practiced at the University of Michigan, says Seattle possesses “significant collegiality” among both clinical research teams and lab researchers. Doctors have unprecedented access to education and mentors here.
“The phrase I usually use when I do international talks is I feel like being in a candy store,” Grivas says. “I have the opportunity to select between dessert opportunities because there are so many people who want to collaborate. They knock on my door and want to work with me.
Dr. Colin C. Pritchard More than 100,000 patients have benefited from the work of Dr. Colin C. Pritchard.
Pritchard, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, also heads Precision Diagnostics for the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and codirects the UW Medicine Genetics and Solid Tumors Laboratory. Last October, he was honored by “Scientific American” with its Catalyst for Precision Medicine Award, which noted that “clinical tests using assays developed, validated, and interpreted by him and his team” have influenced the care of more than 100,000 patients.
The Pritchard Lab is focused primarily on cancer molecular diagnostics and prostate diagnostics for precision medicine and improving diagnostics for Lynch Syndrome, among the most common causes for genetic predisposition to cancer, which often goes undiagnosed. His lab created and validated the UW-OncoPlex assay, a multiplexed next-generation sequencing panel that detects mutations in tumor tissue in more than 350 genes.
He notes that cancer consists of more than 100 different diseases that can invade 25,000 genes, meaning a so-called “cure for cancer” is “hard” from a scientific standpoint. In contrast, the genome of HIV is in only about a dozen genes.
“We’re not going to have a cure for cancer, unfortunately, in the next 20 to 30 years, probably,” Pritchard says. “But what we can do is continue to improve our therapies to get to that point where we might actually have three or four different drugs, sort of like the HIV model.”
Pritchard, a native of the Pacific Northwest, did the entirety of his medical training at the University of Washington. “I never left the building.”
The Stubborn Scientist
Dr. Mary-Claire King insists that she’s just one star in the constellation of Seattle’s medical community. Perhaps. But as the geneticist who discovered the BRCA1 gene, an inherited susceptibility to cancer, that star shines brighter than most.
As a Ph.D. student in genetics at the University of California – Berkeley in the 1970s, her research on the differences between humans and chimpanzees eventually led to the discovery of the BRCA1 gene that can cause breast, ovarian and prostate cancer. She notes that she was among the few at the time pursuing the connection between cancer and genetics. She was, she says, a “stubborn scientist.”
“What I hope for the future is that no woman with a mutation in BRCA1 or 2 would die of ovarian cancer. It’s absolutely unnecessary. It is completely preventable,” says King, who has served as American Cancer Society professor of Medical Genetics and Genome Sciences at UW since 1995 and is an affiliate member of Fred Hutch. “The way to prevent it is that every woman on the planet, regardless of her personal or family history, should be offered genetic testing.”
King has been honored numerous times throughout her career, most recently with the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award last year “for transforming cancer genetics and oncology.” She received the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science in 2014 for both her scientific discoveries and for using DNA strategies to reunite missing persons with their families. President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science in 2016.
King was a professor at UC–Berkeley when she moved to Seattle in 1995 because of the city’s strong and growing health care cluster.
“By moving up here, it was possible to work directly with the physicians and surgeons who are treating patients who have mutations in those (BRCA) genes,” says King, who also studies schizophrenia and related severe mental illnesses. “In principle, of course, one could do that anywhere on Earth. But the beauty of being here is that those collaborations are really organic. People work really well together here.”
illustrationS by Israel G. Vargas