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About one-fifth of cancers are caused by infections like viruses and bacteria, with most concentrated in the developing world. (Fred Hutch Image)

Cancer often seems to strike out of the blue, without warning or reason and often without a clear cause. But in some cases, the cause of a cancer is very specific: an infection from a virus or bacteria.

About one-fifth of all cancer cases worldwide are caused by infections, which means there is an opportunity to prevent and treat these cancers with custom medical technology.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is hoping to do just that with a new integrated research center announced Thursday. The center will be focused on finding treatments, preventions and possibly even cures for cancers caused by infections. It will be led by Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Denise Galloway, whose work helped develop the HPV vaccine that can prevent cervical and other cancers.

Dr. Denise Galloway is the director of the new center and helped develop the HPV vaccine that prevents cervical cancer. (Fred Hutch Photo)

The burden of these cancers  falls largely on the developing world. While one-fifth of cancers are caused by infections on average, that number climbs to one-fourth in China and up to one-third in parts of Southern Africa.

The new center — called the Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center (PAM-IRC) — will bring together researchers in global oncology, pathogen-related cancers, immunotherapy and more to collaborate on research into treatments for these cancers.

“The Hutch is organized around divisions, but these centers really break down those barriers and afford an opportunity for people from different division to work together on common problems,” Galloway, the center’s director, told GeekWire.

She said she’s hopeful the center will drive new discoveries in pathogen-associated cancers that can help fight the diseases.

“Once you know exactly what the agent is that’s causing the cancer, there are lots of ways that you can use that information to either try to make vaccines to prevent the infection or to have tools to better diagnose the early stages of cancer,” or even treat the cancer based on its unique characteristics, she said.  “We’ve been successful in some of those already.”

“I’ve been at Fred Hutch for a long time and I’ve always been interested in the notion that you could take a piece of a virus and put it in a normal cell and drive it towards being a cancer cell,” she said.

At first, Galloway’s research was theoretical, but she and other researchers quickly realized some cancers do actually work this way. In the 1980’s, researchers developed a vaccine for Hepatitis B that prevents liver cancers.

Galloway has spent much of her career studying the Human Papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer, among others. She was on the team that developed the basic science behind the HPV vaccine and helped prove that it effectively prevented cancers.

“The really outstanding progress that we’ve made with HPV makes me think we can do that with other pathogen-associated cancers,” she said.

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