Health/Life Sciences

Longtime UW science chief Nora Disis on gender inequity, translational analysis, and extra

Physician-scientist Nora Disis, director of the University of Washington’s Institute of Translational and Health Sciences. (ITHS Photo)

Mary “Nora” L. Disis has seen a lot of change in her 30 years at the University of Washington. And she’s also helped create it, as the director of the Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS), which fosters the flow of science into the clinic.

“Our purpose here at the UW is to try to turn the entire Pacific Northwest into a translational research engine,” said Disis, a professor of medical oncology who has led the program since its start in 2007. “It means harnessing research to improve the health of people who live here.”

GeekWire spoke with Disis about the future of ITHS, advances in cancer vaccines, and how institutions can support women in STEM. Disis is a featured speaker at an event hosted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center on Wednesday to help fundraise for women-led cancer research.

Disis has seen an increasing number of women tapped for leadership roles at the UW. But there’s more to be done, said Disis, who is also associate dean of Translational Health Science at UW Medicine, director of the UW Cancer Vaccine Institute, a member of Fred Hutch, and editor-in-chief of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Oncology.

“I think we’ve come to the point where we’ve defined that there’s gender inequity in science,” she said. “You can go to any journal and read paper after paper about how women don’t give keynote presentations, how they are underrepresented at national meetings, etc.”

ITHS team photo from a recent retreat. (ITHS Photo)

She noted a recent study showing that women physicians in academic medical centers were less likely than men to be promoted to associate or full professor, or to academic chair — and the gender gap did not narrow over a 35-year period.

“Enough of the data collection. Now it’s time to start being aggressive about changing the system that’s preventing full participation of women,” said Disis.

Disis said there needs to be more support for women responsible for raising kids, such as subsidized daycare. Women still often shoulder the biggest caregiving burden, particularly during a child’s first year of life, she said.

“There’s no flexibility for women who are caregivers, there’s no support,” she said, and the march to tenure allows no wiggle room for part-time work or similar arrangements. “Our academic promotion process needs to be blown apart.”

Disis also said women need to be aggressive about creating their own community and interacting with each other regularly, such as through journal clubs or walking groups. Access to leadership jobs begins with pre-leadership positions that men often control, she added, such as appointments made by faculty chairmen.

“Counsel and teach men who have the control the benefit of different points of view, and structurally change the organization to make these pre-leadership positions 50-50, at least,” she said.

Read on to learn more about Disis’ work with ITHS, which recently landed $63 million from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to fuel the program for the next five years.

“The ITHS provides support and resources for anyone in our region to try to accelerate their research in terms of health discoveries,” she said. The program supports researchers in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. “But our major interest is tackling the big problems and barriers in doing translational science: research about how to make the process faster, better and more efficient.”

GeekWire: What do you see for the future at ITHS, and how are you increasing access to research findings?

Nora Disis: We do telemedicine all the time from the UW out to remote areas. How can we apply that to tele-clinical research, tackling problems that are important to different communities, like substance abuse and suicide-prevention? Another thing we’re looking at is how we can harness the electronic health record and do effective [studies to assess different interventions]. Also, what are best practices for being able to use that data to look across thousands and thousands of patients to see patterns, for example to predict who’s going to do worse with a COVID infection? Our faculty members are working on those types of problems, not only helping to develop the solutions but also developing education around them.

One challenge ITHS has identified is that academic initiatives and community priorities don’t always align. How can you address this gap?

Science, particularly biomedical science, has to be more linked with communities. Our tax dollars pay for science. Communities need to know that they’ve made an investment and they should have a say, and scientists need to know that, too. Scientists need to communicate better about what they’re doing, and how it will impact the communities they’re embedded in. And people should be able to come to a scientist and ask a question. I have people call me up on the phone all the time — and I encourage it, you should be able to ask a question.

“Scientists need to communicate better about what they’re doing, and how it will impact the communities they’re embedded in.”

ITHS will be piloting a “rural health laboratory model,” in which a rural health system and community defines the research agenda. Can you tell us about this effort?

ITHS is linking a community in Idaho [Clearwater Valley Hospitals and Clinics in Orofino] with investigators, and getting them together in a way that they can figure out why some of the solutions aren’t making it down to these communities. A lot of times, people in academia don’t have the in-depth knowledge that they need on the ground to figure out whether an intervention is going to work. We hope that this is a new model that will help communities to tell researchers what they want and help researchers provide more effective interventions.

In 2021 ITHS launched the Technology Development Center, in partnership with other UW programs. How does that work foster startups and commercialization?

We identify investigators who have reasonable and solid intellectual property to see if they’d be interested in creating a spinoff. We bring to the table a series of experts that we’ve had at ITHS for some time who have expertise in drug development, pharmacology and toxicology and things along those lines, to give advice. Most importantly, and what is missing at a lot of universities, is we have a very outstanding business development person on site who will now work with the investigators and try to find them partnerships.

You’ve worked on vaccines for breast cancer and other tumors for decades, but late stage clinical trials in the area have not yielded large effects. What do you see on the horizon for the field?

In the last five to eight years, there’s been an absolute explosion of technologies and understandings about how the immune system recognizes and kills cancer. In the past, people wondered what type of immune response is needed to kill cancer; we now know. And that has come along with a lot of vaccine technologies that have enabled us to engineer them to make the right type of immune responses at pretty high levels in patients with cancer.

There are portions of proteins [on the surface of cancer cells] that do create that type of foreign immune response [when used in a vaccine]; and that’s a technology we developed here at the university. It’s being advanced by a local company, EpiThany, in collaboration with Aston sci (Disis is a co-founder of EpiThany). They are taking four of our vaccines into randomized phase two studies. Disease recurrence is probably going to be the biggest place where vaccines are going to be used in conjunction with standard therapy.

We’re also looking at vaccines in combination with immune checkpoint inhibitors [immune-modifying drugs] for treatment of established disease.

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