Jann Curley had one question for Dr. D. Gary Gilliland. Her husband, Bob, died eight years ago of metastatic melanoma, only three months after being diagnosed.
Now, she wanted to know, are there new advances that would save other families from going through what hers did?
“It’s a terrible, terrible disease as you know. Eight years ago there were really only two treatments,” Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told her.
Today, he said, “we are on the threshold of a tsunami of approaches that harness our own immune systems to benefit patients who have cancer. It’s stunning to see. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen patients go home to hospice and then come back three months later (doing well).”
Gilliland spoke to a crowd of about 300 on Wednesday when he gave the keynote speech to the Rotary Club of Seattle, one of the largest chapters in the world. One of the most dramatic advances in recent years for treating cancer has been in the area of immunotherapy, he said. It’s showing incredible promise for treating melanoma and other cancers.
“As an oncologist, it takes my breath away,” he said.
Gilliland has devoted his life to helping find better cancer treatments. The physician-scientist became president and director of Fred Hutch in January, spent 20 years on the faculty at Harvard, where he was professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University. He was also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the director of the leukemia program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and has earned numerous honors for his work. Most recently he was at Merck Research Laboratories where he honed his knowledge of how to bring promising cancer medications to market where patients can benefit.
Along the way, his life intersected with Fred Hutch both personally and professionally. He met Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who worked alongside his wife, Dottie, to pioneer bone marrow transplantation, and he got to know Deputy Director Dr. Fred Appelbaum, who became his friend and mentor. Gilliland also has a family member who received a successful stem cell transplant at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutch.
“Coming to the Hutch feels like coming home,” he said. “I’ve been working up to this opportunity my entire life.”
For Gilliland, everything going on in the labs at Fred Hutch starts and ends with patients, which drives his sense of urgency.
“There are people dying of cancer as we are here at our Rotary function,” he said.
While immunotherapy is showing lots of promise, there is still work to be done, he noted. Fred Hutch’s motto is “Cures start here. And they do. We have examples. These treatments cure cancer. But not everyone responds. We have more to learn.”
Curley said hearing Gilliland talk about new advances was “wonderful,” and also bittersweet since they didn’t exist at the time her husband, Bob, was diagnosed with melanoma. Her husband of 18 years had been the healthiest person she knew before he got sick, she remembers.
“He was so amazing,” she said. “He climbed Mount Rainier three times, he was a tennis player, a biker. He did everything right.”
One day when he was playing tennis, his leg went numb, as if he’d had a stroke. Tests later showed that not only did he have melanoma, it had spread to his brain. He went through radiation to shrink the tumors and sought other opinions, including at SCCA. Curley remembers the day a doctor told them, “We don’t have any other protocols now.” Bob Curley died at the age of 67.
Now hearing about new hope on the horizon, Curley said “all the advances are so amazing.”
For his part, Gilliland looks toward the day when there are more cures for patients like Bob Curley. He can see it coming as he walks around the halls of Fred Hutch.
“It’s unbelievable what is going on,” he said, “and to see all the experiments people are working on.”
Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and msnbc.com. She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.