Group of male scientists in laboratory

It might seem unlikely for scientists at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI), a research institute focused on causes and cures for autoimmune disease, to study cancer.

But this area of investigation is growing as researchers uncover links between autoimmune disease and the mechanisms that help cancer evade the immune system. If BRI can pinpoint how cancer cells prevent the immune system from attacking tumors, it could reveal ways to shut off the immune system attacks that cause autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Scientists like Dr. Steve Ziegler and others in his lab are exploring these links – and BRI is building an infrastructure to help them make progress against both types of disease.

Dr. Ziegler spent years studying a hormone called thymic stromal lymphopoietin (TSLP) and showing that it plays a key role in asthma and other allergic diseases. So when researchers discovered elevated TSLP levels in several different types of tumors, Dr. Ziegler opened a new line of research to determine whether TSLP also helps drive cancer.

“The bigger picture is that BRI studies the immune system and tries to understand why it veers off course,” says BRI President Jane Buckner, MD. “It’s a natural evolution for us to start looking at cancer, and at just about any other disorder that involves the immune system.”

New Biorepository

Headshot of Lynn Rose, PhDAs BRI’s director of scientific administration, Lynn Rose, PhD, is charged with making sure that researchers have the tools to make progress in new areas. When cancer-autoimmunity links began to emerge, Dr. Rose decided the institute needed a collection of blood and tissue samples from cancer patients. So she secured funding to start a new initiative at BRI and launched a biorepository, a bank of information from volunteers who donate blood and tissue samples and answer health history questions. The new biorepository, called the Virginia Mason and Benaroya Research Institute Tumor Repository (VM BRITE), focuses on understanding this link. 

A collaboration between BRI’s Cancer Core and Virginia Mason surgeons, VM BRITE has gathered information and samples from more than 650 patients, involving more than 15 surgeons. The biorepository now houses key diagnostic data about each patient, as well as blood and tumor samples from people with a range of cancers including breast cancer, melanoma and lung cancer.

This gives BRI researchers material that helps uncover mechanisms that drive human cancer and understand how they work. For instance, Dr. Ziegler and Emma Kuan, PhD, showed that TSLP helps breast cancer tumors survive and grow. Even more significant, the researchers showed that blocking TSLP in model systems can significantly inhibit the growth of breast tumors and halt metastasis to the lungs.

Drs. Ziegler and Kuan used samples from VM BRITE to show that the same cells that make TSLP in models also make TSLP in human breast cancer patients, and that human breast tumor cells respond to TSLP in the same way.

Fighting Diseases

September 11, 2018

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