$10 million bolster for immunotherapy research

Challenge gift will fund research that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer
Dr. Cassian Yee
Clinical Research Division’s Dr. Cassian Yee and colleagues have demonstrated the potential of immunotherapy to save lives. Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

The Hutchinson Center has received a pledge of $10 million to advance the promising field of immunotherapy research to treat and cure cancer, even in late stages.

The donors, the Bezos family, are optimistic that their investment in immunotherapy—a direct outgrowth of the Hutchinson Center’s Nobel Prize-winning work on bone marrow transplantation—will help change the face of cancer treatment. “Our commitment to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is an educated bet on the next forefront in medical science and those who we feel are best positioned to capitalize on it,” Jackie Bezos said.
The family’s gift will help catalyze the Hutchinson Center’s Program in Immunotherapy, a $28.5 million endeavor, which Center researchers believe, may open the door to the final stage in the war on cancer.

“We have been seeking significant private support to solidify the Hutchinson Center’s position as the world leader in immunotherapy research. The Bezos family has stepped up to that challenge,” said Dr. Lee Hartwell, Nobel laureate and president and director of the Hutchinson Center. “Thanks to the generosity of the Bezos family, we will be able to recruit and retain top immunotherapy researchers, create resources for the development of new immunological drugs and strengthen our clinical trials program to make these novel therapies more widely available to patients,” he said.

During the next five years, the Center’s goal is to advance and broaden the field of immunotherapy so that it has the same impact on solid-tumor cancers that bone-marrow transplantation—the first example of the power of the human immune system to cure cancer—has had on leukemia, boosting survival rates from nearly zero to upwards of 85 percent for certain forms of the disease.

The Bezos family chose to structure the gift as a challenge in the hope that it will unite others in the community to join the cause.

“We’re very hopeful, yet mindful that undertakings of this nature are risky,” Jackie said. “There will, inevitably, be setbacks. This is why we are structuring the grant as a challenge  to help the Hutchinson Center secure, for the long term, a diverse group of supporters and to rally a community around science that has the potential to benefit us all.”

The gift is the family’s largest private donation to support biomedical research.

“We chose to support the Hutchinson Center because it is a world leader in immunotherapy, which wields the power of the immune system to reprogram the body’s army of infection-fighting T cells to be laser focused on fighting a particular illness. The first target—and it’s a big one—is cancer. But the potential for using immunotherapy to treat other diseases, including those of the autoimmune system, are tremendous,” Jackie said.

Already Center scientists have demonstrated the potential of immunotherapy to save lives. In June 2008 a research team led by the Clinical Research Division’s Dr. Cassian Yee described the first successful use of a human patient’s cloned infection-fighting T cells as the sole therapy to put advanced melanoma tumors into long-term remission. Yee and colleagues are now expanding clinical trials that use T-cell therapy to treat advanced tumors.

“Now is the time to unleash the full potential of the immune-based approaches we have been so instrumental in discovering and developing, and the Bezos family gift will be instrumental in helping us realize this vision,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division.

[Adapted from a Hutchinson Center news release.]

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