Treatment Research

Immunotherapy

Fred Hutch researchers are renowned for developing successful treatments that harness the immune system to fight cancer, much as it naturally eliminates everyday infections like the common cold.

Our Nobel Prize-winning work on bone marrow transplantation provided the first example of the human immune system's power to cure cancer. Today, we continue to lead this revolutionary field, called immunotherapy, which is yielding effective cancer treatments with far fewer side effects than conventional drugs, radiation or surgery.

We've already used immunotherapy to boost survival rates for patients with leukemia and other blood cancers. And we've shown it has promise for treating many other cancers.

Our goal is to have the same impact on these cancers that bone marrow transplantation has had on leukemia.

The Promise of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy leverages the power of the human immune system to wipe out cancer.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is an innovative treatment approach that empowers the human immune system to fight off cancer and other debilitating diseases.

The immune system — a complex conglomerate that includes disease-fighting cells and proteins — is well-known for its remarkable ability to locate, recognize and attack illnesses like the common cold. However, the immune system is not always able to eliminate cancer cells when they form. And once malignant tumors develop, they can use a variety of tactics to evade immune attack.

Thanks to continually evolving research, scientists have discovered new ways to tap into the immune system's inherent disease-fighting power and give it the upper hand against cancer.

The most exciting part? Because immunotherapies harness the patient’s own immune system, they are far less likely to produce the painful side effects common to traditional cancer treatments.

Lifesaving discoveries

Some of the world’s most significant immunotherapy breakthroughs have occurred at Fred Hutch. Our researchers were the first to show that rare disease-fighting cells called T cells can be extracted from patients, multiplied in large quantities and infused back into patients. Our scientists have established that this method can boost the body's ability to fight viral diseases, such as cytomegalovirus and HIV, and cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma and breast cancer.

Some of our breakthrough research:

Dr. Stanley Riddell

  • Fred Hutch researchers used a melanoma patient’s own cloned T cells to put his cancer into long-term remission. Two years after a 52-year-old Oregon man received an infusion of 5 billion copies of his own CD4+ T-cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks a protein associated with his cancer, he continued to be cancer-free.

  • Drs. Stanley Riddell and Cameron Turtle and their colleagues have contributed important discoveries about precisely which subsets of T cells are best suited for use in cancer therapies. By carefully controlling the composition of T-cell treatments, our scientists aim to achieve more predictable, consistent and lasting therapeutic effects in patients.

  • Drs. Oliver Press and Brian Till are investigating the addition of a molecular “off switch” for engineered T cells. When triggered, this off-switch eliminates engineered anti-cancer T-cells that could potentially attack healthy cells and helps protect patients from potential unwanted side effects from treatment.

  • Dr. John Pagel is developing a method for treating leukemia and lymphomas called pretargeted radioimmunotherapy that will make treatment more effective and less toxic for patients. By using a multi-stage approach to deliver a cancer-targeting antibody separately from the radioactive element, Dr. Pagel can direct significantly more radiation to selectively kill more leukemic cells, compared to exisiting radioimmunotherapy procedures. The radiolabeled antibody program is fine-tuned for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and was recently licensed by Fred Hutch to Actinium Pharmaceuticals.

  • Dr. Damian Green hopes to ultimately offer a cure for multiple myeloma using a similar radioimmunotherapy approach to hunt down each cancer cell in a patient's body. 

  • To protect more transplant receipients from a potentially life-threatening relapse, Drs. Phil Greenberg and Merav Bar have launched a clinical trial to test the safety of administering specialized T cells to patients after transplant. The therapeutic T cells have been specifically engineered to kill leukemia cells more effectively than the immune response that might be naturally elicited in the patient.
  • Dr. Seth Pollack is aiming a T-cell therapy squarely at a target called NY-ESO-1, which is found on soft tissue sarcomas as well as other tumors including some melanomas, leukemias, lung and prostate cancers.
  • Dr. Corinna Palanca-Wessels is developing molecular packages that act like tiny Trojan Horses, selectively infiltrating and destroying cancer cells.

  • Dr. Brenda Sandmaier and colleagues will launch a radioimmunotherapy clinical trial for pet dogs with a certain type of blood cancer.