Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientists striving for cancer cures — and the patients who stand to benefit from new treatments — got an enormous boost today when the Bezos family committed $20 million to support the development of novel cancer immunotherapies. It is the largest single contribution in Fred Hutch’s history.
“We’ve followed the work Fred Hutch scientists have been conducting over the last few years in the promising area of immunotherapy to combat cancer and are so encouraged by the spectacular results in patients with leukemia and lymphoma,” said Mike Bezos on behalf of the Bezos family. “The potential to now attack other cancers with this approach is too huge not to take this research to the next level. We believe the scientists at Fred Hutch are ready to take this challenge, and we are pleased to be supporting their efforts.”
Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of the Hutch, said, “We are immensely grateful to the Bezos family for this remarkable gift. It will allow us to extend the momentum we have established in using genetically modified human T cells to treat cancer.”
The gift will enable Fred Hutch, along with its partners at the University of Washington and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, to combine its long record of discovery in cancer immunotherapy with the latest technologies to transform treatment for common solid-tumor cancers, including those of the lung, ovaries, pancreas and colon.
“The Bezos family’s generous gift is absolutely invaluable,” said Dr. Frederick R. Appelbaum, executive vice president and deputy director at Fred Hutch. “Their enthusiasm for this work and the impact it can have on patients means a great deal to us. They are extraordinary allies.”
This is not the first time the Bezos family, which is active in the Seattle philanthropic community as well as with programs around the country, has partnered with Fred Hutch to fuel lifesaving cancer research. In 2009, they made a catalytic $10 million challenge gift to support immunotherapy research. That challenge was met within a year by a large community of donors inspired by both the Bezos family’s philanthropic leadership and the promise of a new generation of cancer treatments that would be far safer and more effective for patients.
Over the past five years, Fred Hutch researchers have worked to turn that vision into reality. Collective philanthropic support has helped these teams develop methods for significantly improving adoptive T-cell therapy, in which certain immune cells are reprogrammed to recognize and destroy a patient’s cancer, and steadily advance their work from laboratory experiments to early phase trials for patients with certain leukemias and lymphomas.
Fewer side effects than chemotherapy, radiation and surgery
Once infused into the patient, these tumor-destroying cells — about 20 million of them — continue to multiply, serving as a living therapy. Because T-cell therapy can eliminate cancer cells without harming healthy ones, it causes fewer side effects than chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Hutch researchers are also using specific combinations of T cells to produce more consistent, predictable and long-lasting results in patients. More than 45 patients have been enrolled in trials so far, and Fred Hutch researchers expect to enroll more than 100 additional patients in at least five trials over the coming year.
“Early results with lymphoma and leukemia patients who were resistant to chemotherapy have been incredibly encouraging,” Appelbaum said. “These are patients with literally pounds of tumor that are treated with less than a thimble full of T cells, and their tumors melt away. They get complete remissions in a matter of days — not months, days.”
In December 2013, the progress at the Hutch, as well as in similar studies at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, prompted the three cancer research powerhouses to launch Juno Therapeutics, Inc. The $145 million biotech startup unites technologies developed at the three institutions to help bring these promising approaches to leukemia and lymphoma patients more quickly.
Now, with the Bezos family’s continued partnership, Seattle-based scientists can supercharge an even broader array of projects and extend these research successes beyond blood cancers to the so-called “solid tumors.”
“The kind of funding we’ve received from the Bezos family allows us to support our world-class team and recruit essential new team members, conduct pilot studies of new ideas, and organize the entire discovery process from A to Z — from concept to basic science to preclinical studies to clinical trials,” said Appelbaum. “It’s almost undoable with conventional grant funding, but with philanthropic funding to structure the whole program — as opposed to just a couple experiments — it’s a whole different world.”
For example, the gift will provide resources for collecting and analyzing tumor samples to discover new targets for immune-based therapies in common solid tumors. The bank of samples and detailed information about the cancers’ molecular signatures have the added benefit of advancing the Hutch’s solid tumor and precision oncology research more broadly, generating resources and data that teams across the institution can tap for a wide array of studies.
Support at the programmatic level will also enable immunologists and gene therapy researchers to continue perfecting the T cells and other components of these therapies to ensure they produce consistently safe and lasting cures for patients. And once new treatments have been optimized in the lab, the Hutch’s clinical researchers will have funding to quickly launch early phase trials in patients.
The roots of all these advances stretch back to the Hutch’s founding and the Nobel Prize-winning work of Dr. E. Donnall “Don” Thomas, who pioneered bone marrow transplantation as a cure for blood cancers. That approach provided one of the first examples of the power of the human immune system to overcome cancer.
“Early on, we saw that transplantation could cure an occasional patient with leukemia, and the data emerged that it was the immune system that was contributing to that cure,” said Appelbaum, whom Thomas recruited to join the Hutch team in 1978. “Many of my colleagues and I were captivated by the idea that we could make this work for leukemia and lymphoma and solid tumors. It’s been a long journey, but it is one we have been working on ever since.”
'Great optimism for the future'
More than one million transplants have now been performed around the globe, and Fred Hutch continues to lead the world in immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer as well as other diseases. In addition to developing T-cell therapies for blood cancers, melanoma and a rare skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, Hutch researchers are at the forefront of using antibodies — another key component of the immune system — to precisely target therapy to tumors. And teams at Fred Hutch continue to make landmark advances in transplantation, extending it to more patients through the use of umbilical cord blood, and testing its potential as a treatment for severe forms of Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
As much promise as these approaches show, much more work needs to be done before they can become new gold standards in patient care, which is why private funding for research is so essential.
“The Bezos family’s contribution comes at a pivotal time,” said Corey. “We have strong indications that immunotherapy will be effective for a much broader range of cancers, and we now have resources to utilize our technologies to discover targets for some of the most deadly cancers.”
“This gift will accelerate the development of an exciting new technology for patients with solid tumors, which has the potential to significantly improve the quality and duration of their lives. It will help free up our cancer researchers so they can spend less time writing grant applications and more time focused on conducting research that makes a difference in patients’ lives,” said Fred Hutch’s Dr. Oliver Press, a world leader in immunotherapy research.
Ultimately, making that difference is what the Bezos family and Fred Hutch researchers are all dedicated to achieving.
“Seeing our initial investment translated into a therapy that is truly changing patients’ lives in a profound way is so motivating. It gives us great optimism for the future,” Jackie Bezos said.
“Cancer got the jump on us, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.”
Andrea Detter is the deputy editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.