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News / Northwest

Jill Biden touts Seattle’s cancer center during visit

First lady's national tour of leading research facilities brings her to Fred Hutchinson

By Elise Takahama, The Seattle Times
Published: September 24, 2023, 5:54pm

Clear skies and a sunny afternoon greeted first lady Jill Biden on Friday as she visited Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, the latest stop in her national tour of prominent cancer research facilities.

The center filled with scientists, patients and local officials, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, as the first lady heard more about the city’s efforts to battle cancer and spoke about the White House’s Cancer Moonshot efforts, a renewed, national commitment to finding a cure for the deadly disease.

The spotlight on the South Lake Union center is “further recognition of the Hutch’s place in the fabric of cancer research,” said Cyrus Ghajar, a professor who has worked at Fred Hutch for over a decade and specializes in metastasis, or the spread of cancer cells. He gave Biden a brief tour of his metastatic microenvironments lab Friday.

“This is the kind of science that’s going to make a difference for our patients,” Hutchinson President and Director Dr. Thomas Lynch Jr. said during the visit.

The afternoon began at Ghajar’s lab — where the first lady, after marveling at the fifth-floor view of Lake Union, spent some time learning about the science of metastasis and how it works specifically in breast cancers.

“If tumors in the breast just stayed in the breast, they would only kill a very small fraction of patients,” Ghajar said. “Where trouble starts is when those cells leave the breasts, which they do very early during tumor progression, and go and sit in the liver, bone marrow, brain, lungs and all these other places throughout the body.”

Once something happens that wakes up the cells, they destroy the organ they’re within — which is what causes about 94 percent of breast cancer deaths, he told Biden.

At one point, a lab researcher pointed to a microscope on the counter that the team uses to identify bone marrow samples from breast cancer patients. When the first lady peered through the lens, she noted the color markers she could see in the samples, which help scientists profile cells.

The lab’s goal is to profile enough cells to better understand their biology, Ghajar said. They’ll then use that knowledge to develop therapies that can target dormant cells and figure out how to prevent cancer from returning, he added.

“They are the secret weapons,” Biden said of the lab researchers. “I’m just magnifying the message. You’re all giving people hope.”

Later, the first lady joined a panel of Fred Hutchinson leaders to discuss next steps in pediatric oncology, cancer survivorship and decreasing the significant costs of care — which often lead to financial challenges that make receiving treatment feel like “walking underwater,” Biden said.

Kent resident and breast cancer survivor Leah Marcoe also sat in on the conversation, adding personal anecdotes about seeking care during the worst of the pandemic. Marcoe, who received treatment at Fred Hutchinson, expressed gratitude for her providers — who last year approved a pause in her treatment so she could try to get pregnant.

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“I can happily say I now have an 11-week-old son at home,” Marcoe said.

Because cancer screening rates dropped dramatically during the pandemic, the group of researchers emphasized the need to refocus attention on prevention efforts.

“I truly believe in the prevention aspect of this,” Biden said. “With the pandemic, we lost so much time with screenings. It took a lot of people a lot of time to get back into hospitals. … We have got to catch up.”

The Bidens’ Cancer Moonshot initiative aims to prevent more than 4 million cancer deaths by 2047. It was first launched during President Joe Biden’s tenure as vice president.

The president last year set a goal of reducing U.S. cancer fatalities by 50 percent over the next 25 years while improving the quality of life of patients and caregivers.

Biden himself visited Fred Hutchinson in 2016, touring the lab of a researcher whose work included immunotherapy, which uses a patient’s own immune system to combat the disease.

Cancer has taken a personal toll on the Bidens, as it has for many families, with the president’s son, Beau Biden, dying from brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46.

“This visit is a huge honor,” Ghajar said Friday. Referencing Joe Biden’s past tour, he added, “The first lady coming is a cool way to complete the circle.”