April 18, 2013

Nobel laureate stresses need to develop biomarkers

After 40 years in basic science working with yeast cells, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., has turned his attention in a new direction.

Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., talks about his work to develop biomarkers to provide measures of health and disease during his recent Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Joe Howell)

After 40 years in basic science working with yeast cells, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., has turned his attention in a new direction.

The former president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle told the audience at last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture that he came to a “surprising conclusion” during his 12 years as cancer center director.

“I decided that the real opportunity in cancer is to detect cancer earlier and prevent it … not the direction you might have expected me to go with my basic understanding and appreciation of the cell cycle.”

In 2010, Hartwell moved to the Center for Sustainable Health at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, where he is the Virginia G. Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine and Chief Scientist. In his new role, he is working to develop molecular diagnostics — biomarkers/biosignatures — that will provide measures of health and disease.

Though there have been many reports of biomarkers for disease, “the problem is very few of these biomarkers are actually reaching clinical practice,” he said. There’s no effective “biomarker pipeline” analogous to the pharmaceutical pipeline for new medicines.

Hartwell urged the basic scientists in the audience to “think not only about the therapeutic implications of your findings, but to think about the diagnostic implications as well.

“I think it will be easier to make a fundamental contribution to the diagnostics of a disease, and to make a more fundamental contribution to the eventual outcome of patients by doing that,” he said.

Hartwell is working with the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and University in Taiwan — a system of hospitals that sees 6 million patients — to develop biomarkers and diagnostics in specific disease areas: oral cancer, colon cancer, kidney failure, liver failure and heart failure.

“Primarily this is an effort to take the biomarkers that the world has discovered and test which ones really reproduce in a clinical setting,” Hartwell said.

“The hope is that we will cull the preliminary reports from the literature down to a set of biomarkers that can be applied to very specific clinical decision needs.”

The lecture, which was also the Orrin Ingram Distinguished Lecture, was sponsored by the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the Department of Cancer Biology.

For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.