Immunotherapy offers 'new era' for cancer patients

Dr. Stan Riddell wows Science for Life attendees with overview of one of the most promising areas of medical research
Dr. Stan Riddell
“In my career in science and in medicine, I think these are amongst the most dramatic responses that I have ever seen with any therapy,” Dr. Riddell told nearly 200 members of the public who attended his presentation on Thursday, titled, "Cancer Immunotherapy — Is the Cure Inside of You?" Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

“This is something that is not just science fiction. This is real world,” Dr. Stan Riddell said on Thursday when he described the immunotherapies currently being developed and tested as treatments for cancer. “We are entering, I think, a new era where immunotherapy is going to become as established as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and I’m hoping that it’s going to be a lot safer for patients and a lot more effective.”

Riddell, a world-renowned immunotherapy researcher and oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, made the comments to the nearly 200 members of the public who packed the Hutch’s Pelton Auditorium to hear his presentation, “Cancer Immunotherapy — Is the Cure Inside of You?” The Hutch-hosted Science for Life event enabled community members to hear about one of the hottest topics in medical research from one of the pioneers of the field.

Watch Dr. Riddell's entire speech here.

After providing a quick crash course in immunology, Riddell walked the audience through key discoveries — including pivotal breakthroughs made by Fred Hutch researchers — that demonstrated the immune system is far more than an innocent bystander when it comes to cancer. Thanks to decades of work, scientists are now leveraging the immune system’s inherent ability to keep health threats at bay to treat and even cure patients with otherwise incurable cancers.

Details Riddell shared of the laboratory and clinical research he and his Fred Hutch colleagues are currently conducting drew audible signs of astonishment from attendees. A video showing engineered T cells chewing up brain cancer cells in petri dish elicited more than one “Cool!” But it was a series of CT and PET scans of clinical trial participants that really wowed the capacity crowd. The images showed large tumors shrinking and vanishing in a matter of weeks after the patients received the experimental T-cell therapies.

“In my career in science and in medicine, I think these are amongst the most dramatic responses that I have ever seen with any therapy,” Riddell said, but he also emphasized that these therapies are not perfect. He described how research teams at the Hutch are rapidly working to make the approaches safer and more powerful, including exploring how best to combine multiple immunotherapies and how to engineer T cells with “molecular Velcro” to make them effective against more types of cancers.

The hour-long presentation was followed by a Q&A session that touched on everything from how scientists at different institutions collaborate to make progress more quickly to how the courage, fortitude and positive attitudes of their patients inspire Riddell and his colleagues. Several questions addressed the biological and technical challenges that remain before these promising treatments become mainstays of cancer care around the world.

“We’re at the starting line,” Riddell said. “But I think we’re at the starting line where we know that we’re in a race that we actually can win.”

Watch Dr. Riddell's entire speech here.

Andrea Detter is the deputy editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Reach her at

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