The word “cure” has long been overused, but the promise of immunotherapy as an anti-cancer weapon means it’s indeed the right time to start using it, said Dr. D. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Gilliland was speaking at a sold-out Xconomy Forum held at the Hutch on Wednesday. The title and focus of the forum was “Seattle Biotech Seizes the Momentum.”
In fact, he said, historic breakthroughs at Fred Hutch decades ago that tapped stem cell transplants to snuff blood cancers offered the first glimpses that the immune system had a role in curing cancers.
“One of the exciting things here at the Hutch is this is where stem cell transplants offered a real view into true cures,” Gilliland said, adding that this insight has led to an understanding of “redirecting the immune system" to eradicate cancer.
"Our tagline is ‘Cures Start Here,’ and there is a certain amount of hubris in that. But we finally can see this coming," he said, referring to the use of immunotherapy to halt cancer in its tracks. “This is all beginning to explode.”
The science of immunotherapy looks thrilling, particularly in terms of its ability to fuel the body’s own defenses to ignite a complete regression of some tumors. But Alex Lash, national biotech editor at Xconomy, asked Gilliland if the rapid evolution of immunotherapy can reach the masses at a cost that average cancer patients can afford.
More to that point, Lash asked during a question-and-answer session, do Fred Hutch researchers working on such treatments have a responsibility to consider whether ill people can afford immunotherapy? Should those same researchers even be cognizant of the rate of Medicare reimbursements for such treatments?
"There's clearly unsustainable growth in the cost of cancer drugs,” Gilliland responded. "What our investigators are interested in, want they want to know is: What works, why does it work, and who does it work [for] – versus thinking about Medicare reimbursements.”
But many Fred Hutch researchers do have “an increased appreciation of the value proposition” of their work during a time of increased financial restraints at the National Institutes of Health, Gilliland said.
“If I could get Paul Allen to give me $500 million, I would worry less about it,” he joked.
Allen, a Microsoft mogul, launched his brain research center 12 years ago in Seattle by donating $100 million over five years. Since then, he has invested another $400 million to the project.
"The exciting thing about the engagement of the immune system is that we now understand so much better. We do know how to trigger the immune system … that it can do nothing more than trigger T cells and people can be cured of their disease. It’s a very exciting time,” Gilliland said.
Earlier Wednesday, Juno Therapeutics and Fate Therapeutics Inc. announced a collaboration and license agreement to identify and use small molecules to modulate Juno's genetically engineered T-cell product candidates to boost their therapeutic potential for cancer patients.
Juno Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biotechnology company, was founded to further develop the immunotherapy advances from Fred Hutch and its partner organizations and to make these new therapies available more broadly. More than 20 years of preclinical work and early clinical trials, including the CAR T-cell therapy trials, churned out valuable data that became a springboard to Juno’s founding.
That partnership gave Fred Hutch a novel way to bring the latest therapeutics to market and, ultimately, to patients around the world.
T cells are saving lives, said Hans Bishop, CEO of Juno Therapeutics, at the Xconomy Forum.
“Physicians here at the Hutch have presented data [involving T cells] in both leukemia and lymphoma … also very promising,” Bishop said. “The trials tell us a number of important things. They tell us that these transfused T cells are incredibly potent. Most of these responses, by the way, happen within 30 days.”
They also reveal more about our own innate biology. They can find a tissue reservoir that can hide from these T cells. Some of the leukemia patients tested have cancer in their kidneys, for example.
“And we’ve cleared that,” Bishop said.
Moments later, Chad Robbins, chief executive officer of Fred Hutch spinoff Adaptive Biotechnologies, addressed the forum. Hours earlier, his company – a leader in next-generation sequencing of T-cell receptors in the immune system – announced completion of $195 million investment to support strategic growth initiatives.
From that new river of science, the hope is that in 10 to 15 years, people can get an “immune repertoire checkup” like they now get a standard cholesterol test, Robbins said.
Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."