Leland H. Hartwell, Ph.D., Geoffrey Beene Builder of Science Honoree, Provides a Deeper Understanding of How Cancer Cells Grow

Anna Hatch

This article is the first in a series highlighting the accomplishments of Research!America’s 2017 Advocacy Award honorees who will be saluted at a dinner in Washington, D.C. on March 15. More details can be found here.

Leland H. Hartwell, Ph.D., is the 2017 recipient of Research!America’s Geoffrey Beene Builders of Science Award, which honors distinguished leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to advocacy for scientific research by building or revitalizing a research institution. Hartwell is recognized for his leadership as president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) from 1997-2010. FHCRC is a premier scientific research center in Seattle, Washington working to prevent, treat, and diagnose cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.  One of the many successes during Hartwell’s tenure as president of FHCRC was the creation of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance with the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Hartwell won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the cell cycle, a process that describes how cells grow and divide. His research provides a deeper understanding of how cancer cells grow uncontrollably in the body.

Cancer is a prevalent disease and one of the leading causes of death in the United States. An estimated 39.6% of people will be diagnosed with cancer in their life; approximately 1.7 million people have been diagnosed with cancer in 2016. The National Cancer Institute reports there are more than 100 types of cancer

The human body contains trillions of cells, which grow and divide as other cells need to be replenished. Cancer occurs when one of these cells starts dividing uncontrollably creating tumors that make us sick.

During cell division, hundreds of molecular pieces work together coordinating separation into two daughter cells. In his speech at the Nobel Banquet, Hartwell likened cell division to an orchestra explaining, “If you think of cell division as a symphony, we knew that the symphony had to be performed by thousands of musicians each playing a different instrument.” Hartwell used a genetic screen in baker’s yeast to identify the molecular musicians that regulate cell division. 

Baker’s yeast and other model organisms provide a simpler system to understand processes like cell division and often provide a foundation for research in more complex organisms including humans. With this approach, Hartwell discovered the gene that regulates the starting point of cell division. During his Nobel speech, Hartwell explained: “And, it turned out that the same conductor performed this symphony in all types of cells – yeast, fruit flies, sea urchins, frogs and humans.”

Hartwell also discovered a series of checkpoints during division, where cells can pause to repair any damage they’ve incurred before continuing to divide. However, cancer cells are devious and evade checkpoints allowing them to reproduce errors and form tumors. These seminal discoveries shaped our modern understanding of cancer. 

Hartwell is currently director of the Pathfinder Center at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine. He has faculty appointments in the Schools of Education, Sustainability, and Biomedical Engineering. Hartwell is involved in a variety of projects at ASU including the Honeybee Program, which monitors physiological parameters for multiple diseases through the use of wearable devices. In addition, he leads a team that teaches sustainability science to educators.

Anna Hatch is a Research!America Communications Intern.

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