The gray slate stands out among the orange bricks in a courtyard that researchers walk across every day at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. On it is the vow and call to action: “Pain and sorrow must not be the only outcome.”
For the center’s founder, Dr. Bill Hutchinson, that meant turning the anguish of his brother’s death from cancer into a research center named for him. For Vice President Joe Biden, whose oldest son, Beau, died at the age of 46 last year from brain cancer, it means devoting the rest of his life to helping end the disease that claimed his son’s life.
The vice president, who is leading the National Cancer Moonshot initiative, came to Fred Hutch Monday as part of his “listening tour.” During his 90-minute stop at the Seattle campus, he went on a brief lab tour and then met with a panel of area researchers, care providers, policy makers and a patient, as well as Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland.
"We’re at a place, in my view, where science and medicine have not been before," Biden said Monday. "And it’s offering immense hope that we can make breakthroughs that will affect the lives of millions and millions of people around the world. There’s nothing I’ve done before that’s generated as much overwhelming, spontaneous, international, bipartisan support."
The moonshot, named for the once seemingly impossible goal of sending a person to the moon, was officially announced in President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union address. Biden was named to lead the initiative. Since then, the vice president has visited a number of research centers to learn more, put together a task force and begun working on a list of recommendations expected to be released in June.
“We know you share the same commitment we do to curing cancer,” Gilliland told him Monday. “Like the architects of the original moonshot, Fred Hutch also specializes in doing what people once thought impossible.”
Fred Hutch was home to Nobel Prize–winner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who pioneered bone marrow transplantation as a cure for leukemia and other blood diseases. It was Thomas’ work, Gilliland noted, that helped researchers understand how the immune system could be harnessed to cure cancer, paving the way for modern immunotherapy.
Biden started his visit with a tour of the lab of Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Stanley Riddell, accompanied by Dr. Phil Greenberg. Both Greenberg and Riddell are leaders in the field of immunotherapy. Last month, Riddell made headlines when he presented preliminary findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting of a clinical trial showing complete remissions in many patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The trial participants were treated with a form of immunotherapy called adoptive T-cell therapy, which uses intact, living T cells — isolated from the patient’s blood and reprogrammed specifically to target the disease — to eliminate tumors. Some patients, for whom no other treatments had worked and who were only weeks from death, are still alive 18 months later, Riddell said.
"We've really worked at understanding the cells that we are engineering in a different way from any other center .... It's allowed us to treat patients with extremely small doses of cells," he said.
When asked by Biden why that matters, Riddell explained: "It's relevant because it makes the process of generating a cell product faster and more cheaply," ultimately making it more affordable and accessible for patients.
Every time Riddell sees patients in the clinic, he goes back to his research with a new sense of urgency, he said. “The courage of patients is inspiring, and it makes me realize that we don’t have the best [treatments] yet. We have to do better.”
This year alone, 600,000 people in the U.S. will die of cancer, noted Gilliland in his welcoming remarks to Biden. “At Fred Hutch, our goal is to cure cancer, not just treat it.”
Biden said the moonshot is focusing on four goals to help bring an end to cancer as we know it: to accelerate the understanding of cancer, improve patient access and care, identify existing regulatory barriers at the federal level and support greater access to research and data.
"I'm convinced through talking to all of you that there are cures available," he said.
But, he added, there needs to be more sharing of data among researchers. "The problem is that the data is trapped away in silos. How do we unlock that data?"
To that end, the moonshot task force and the panels on his “listening tours” are bringing together key people from a wide array of backgrounds.
In addition to Riddell and Gilliland, those on the panel for the vice president’s Seattle roundtable discussion included:
The quest to find a cure is also very personal for panel member Bard Richmond. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2014 when his twin sons were 14 and his youngest child was 12. When he heard his diagnosis, he “fell though the floor,” he remembers, overcome with worry about not being able to be there for his wife, Julie, and his children, who were present Monday for the panel.
Last year he underwent a blood stem cell transplant at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutch, and is now in remission. But while the procedure was successful for him, the preparation for it — using high doses of chemotherapy — and then a long recovery time away from his family after the transplant were difficult.
As a philanthropist, he said, he’s devoted to helping fund bold ideas that might not get funded otherwise. In 1999, he was given a Point of Light award from President Bill Clinton for his work founding Community Voice Mail, a service that provided people who are homeless a phone number and voice mail so potential employers could reach them. He also supports neuroscience labs at the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Now he’s also committed to supporting the Hutch’s research in immunotherapy, a treatment that is not only personally tailored to the patient but can often be delivered with a single infusion and side effects that can be no worse than a case of the flu.
“It would be wonderful if it could cure my cancer, but even if that's not to be, an effective immunotherapy in just [multiple myeloma] could save the lives of [up to] 13,000 people each year in this country alone. It’d make a tremendous difference,” he said.
Panelist Dr. Angelique Richard, chief nurse executive and vice president of clinical operations for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, began her career as a 21-year-old working in the bone marrow transplant unit of a hospital. She vividly remembers patients like the young mother who went through the procedure, despite poor odds, so that, no matter what the outcome, her children would know she did all she could to stay with them.
While treatments have come a long ways, there is still much to be done, she said. She believes the spotlight on cancer that the moonshot is providing could make a profound difference in terms of treatment and also easing the financial impact on patients.
“I believe the moonshot has the ability to alleviate these challenges for cancer patients and families, whether through more effective treatments, better supportive care or a greater number of cures,” she said. “I also feel that the social and economic burdens have the potential of being significantly reduced or eliminated by the moonshot initiative.”
The Obama administration has proposed spending $1 billion on the moonshot over the next two years: $195 million in research in the current fiscal year and $755 million in fiscal year 2017.
The need for funding was a recurring theme on the panel. Riddell said it’s one of the biggest barriers for him as a researcher in being able to do lifesaving science.
Fred Hutch’s Gilliland also underscored the need for more funding – both federal and private – in his concluding comments. He expects to see more advances in cancer research in the next few years than he has in the past 50, he said.
“Mr. Vice President, as you’ve heard and seen today, we are on the cusp of cures for many kinds of cancer,” he said. “We truly can see that bold horizon.”
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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.
Andrea Detter is the senior science editor on the Communications team at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and manages a team of science writers. She’s written on a host of topics including new discoveries in biomedical research, patient care and the intricate and innovative ways science gets done today. Reach her at email@example.com.