Jimmy Carter’s grandson tours Fred Hutch, talks science behind former president’s cancer treatment

Jason Carter accepts first honorary Hutch Award on behalf of former president
Jason Carter
Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, left, tours Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb's lab on Tuesday. Carter accepted an honorary Hutch Award for his grandfather on Wednesday at Seattle's Safeco Field. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

When Jason Carter scans his family tree, he sees service — the Peace Corps, the military, the Oval Office. He also sees cancer.

As his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, continued treatment for advanced melanoma, Jason Carter toured Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Tuesday with a message of gratitude and a sense of hope about looming cures.

“For me, this stuff hits close to home. My grandfather lost both of his parents and three of his siblings to pancreatic cancer. My father, my uncle, and my grandfather have had melanoma in the last year. So this stuff is a big deal to me,” said Jason Carter, 40, an Atlanta business lawyer.

“My kids are 9 and 7. And to watch the progress and to be part of a group of people who are participating so closely in that future and in that progress, it’s just exciting.”

On Wednesday, Carter accepted the first honorary Hutch Award on behalf of his grandfather. Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland bestowed the award during a ceremony and luncheon at Seattle’s Safeco Field.

For the trip, Carter carried a letter from the man who’s simply called “Papa” by his family. Since last summer, the former president, 91, has been receiving immunotherapy infusions every three weeks to attack his melanoma.

Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s immune system to fight disease and carries far fewer side effects than conventional cancer treatments. It’s a cornerstone of ongoing research at the Hutch where scientists have used immunotherapy to increase survival rates for patients with leukemia and other blood cancers — and have shown its promise to fuel the first cures for some of the most challenging solid tumors, including lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

Gigantic blessings

“The blessings he’s had in his life are incredible,” Jason Carter said in an interview. “And this [blessing] that he got as a result of the research — that we all got as a result of the research that’s being done there — is a gigantic one.”

President Carter revealed in August that melanoma had been detected in his liver and brain. That month, he had surgery to remove a small mass from his liver, and he began receiving pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug. In December, he said his latest brain scan “did not reveal any signs of the original cancer spots nor any new ones.”

“All I can tell you is the way that it feels on the inside of this family. And the way that it feels is it’s really a remarkable thing,” Jason Carter said.

“When people think about cancer treatments, they think about some of the horrible side effects of serious chemo. To avoid that is remarkable. And the idea that our own bodies can be turned against this disease is powerful,” he added.

During his Hutch tour, Carter spent time in the lab of Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, a transplantation biologist, and he spoke with clinical researcher Dr. Sylvia Lee, who's leading a TIL immunotherapy trial for patients with melanoma.

As for Jimmy Carter’s current health, his grandson reports that he “feels good” and remains “amazed on some level at the ability to get treated.” The infusions cause some fatigue that requires “a couple of days to feel 100 percent normal.”

No signs of slowing

But the former president has maintained a rigorous schedule. Each morning, he rises at 5 to read the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has finished numerous paintings and he’s writing a book, his grandson said. During the treatments, he also continued his longtime — and physical — service with Habitat for Humanity.

“Obviously, nobody knows what’s next, but he feels great. He hasn’t slowed down at all,” Jason Carter said. “He made this big announcement [last year] that he was going to pull back or slow down his schedule but nobody has seen any real evidence of that.”

“I think, the way that he feels, he has surprised himself even.”

Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor in 2014, now chairs the board of trustees for the Carter Center, a nonprofit founded in 1982 by Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter. The organization has led a coalition to reduce incidence of Guinea worm disease from an estimated 3.5 million cases in 1986 to 126 reported cases in 2014, according to the World Health Organization. Carter Center members also have observed 101 elections in 39 countries to help foster democracies.

The Carter way

As part of his role, Jason Carter recently traveled to Myanmar to monitor that nation’s historic parliamentary elections. Early in his career, after completing a political science degree at Duke University, he joined the Peace Corps and was posted to a village on South Africa's border from 1998 to 2000. (His great-grandmother, Lillian Carter, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in India from 1966 to 1968 while in her late 60s.)

“What Jason and his grandfather have in common is the dirt-under-your-nails type of service,” said Thomas Bates, who roomed with the younger Carter at Duke from 1993 to 1997. Bates is special counsel and director of government affairs at Fred Hutch.

Bates has seen both the former president and his college buddy in action in the field.

During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Bates and the two Carters headed to a tree-planting project at a park outside the Mile High City. Well-intentioned rangers had already dug the hole and inserted the baby tree — with burlap still covering the root ball, Bates recalled.

“When [Jimmy Carter] got there, he said: ‘That’s not how I do things. And also, if you don’t take the burlap off of this tree, it will die.’ Then, he literally pulls the tree out of the hole, pulls the burlap off, re-digs the hole and plants it himself,” Bates said.

“To me, that’s the Carter way of service.”

Jason Carter talks immunotherapy
Dr Sylvia Lee, right, describes her research to baseball great Carlton Fisk, center, and Jason Carter, right, grandson of President Jimmy Carter, as they toured the Fred Hutch campus in Seattle. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

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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." 

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