The waiting room of the brand-new Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic was packed on Monday as philanthropists, scientific leadership, patients and families celebrated the one-of-its-kind facility’s grand opening.
The opening of the clinic ― named in honor of the Bezos family’s dedicated commitment to immunotherapy research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center ― was marked by a scientific symposium at Fred Hutch and a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the clinic on the sixth floor of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“This is built on many years of discoveries about the human immune system,” much of them at Fred Hutch, the clinic’s medical director, the Hutch’s Dr. David Maloney, said in his opening remarks at the ribbon-cutting.
When the green ribbon stretched across the clinic’s front desk was ceremonially cut, it was one of Maloney’s former immunotherapy patients who held the scissors. Lymphoma survivor Stephanie Florence was treated with genetically engineered, cancer-targeting immune cells on a Fred Hutch clinical trial. She has now been cancer-free for 18 months.
The research at the Hutch “has given me my life,” said the Lewiston, Idaho resident. At the point she enrolled on the trial, her cancer had come back despite multiple conventional therapies, including a transplant of blood-forming stem cells. “It’s almost like winning the lottery every day for the past 18 months.”
Dedicated to providing immunotherapies for cancer patients in clinical trials, the facility enables intensive monitoring of each patient to help scientists understand why some respond to experimental immune therapies and others do not, with the goal of developing curative approaches for every person with cancer ― “bench to bedside then back to the lab and back to the clinic,” Maloney said.
While Florence received her experimental treatment before the clinic opened, all of the new participants in her clinical trial are now seen there, as well as participants on four other trials. Next year, the Hutch anticipates 12 trials, thanks to the doubled patient capacity the clinic offers. There have been more than 200 patient visits so far to the 9,222-square foot facility since its soft opening in October, Maloney said.
And this week, the first patient seen at the new clinic completes therapy and heads home. Her advanced, treatment-resistant leukemia is in complete remission, said Maloney.
“As a physician, nothing is more encouraging,” he said. “But there’s much more to do … and that’s why this clinic is so important.”
Philanthropists Jackie and Michael Bezos were joined at the ceremony by their family, including their son, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and their daughter, Christina Poore. Maloney gave the family a tour of clinic, whose gleaming white walls and cool blue accents Maloney says his patients tell him is reminiscent of an Apple store.
Jackie made remarks on behalf of the family before she and her husband joined Florence, Maloney, and other Hutch and SCCA leadership to cut the ribbon.
“Our investment in the Hutch is really an investment in the researchers, the scientists, the people who come here for treatment, everybody who walks these floors over here or at the Hutch,” said Jackie Bezos. “It really is a partnership and an investment. And I would have to say that if I was into big bets, this paid off.”
Standing in front of the sign bearing her family’s name and the green ceremonial ribbon, she remembered how it all began.
In 2008, a friend brought her and her husband to Fred Hutch to meet with scientists working on a new approach to curing cancer. There was an “electrified” feeling in the room, she remembered, and she was fascinated by the approach they described to her: “superpowering” patients’ own immune systems to fight their cancers.
And she remembered what she said to her husband afterwards, as the two of them walked back to their car.
“Mike,” she said, “I think they’re on to something.”
In the years that followed, the family’s generous philanthropic investments spurred the growth of the program at Fred Hutch and made it possible to launch new experimental treatment approaches from the laboratory into the clinic.
“The Bezos family has been such partners in the development of all this,” said Fred Hutch Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Fred Appelbaum. “Without them, it would not have happened.”
“This is a place where miracles happen, but they’re not just miracles,” Bezos said. “They’re well thought-out decisions on how to take a person’s disease and make them disease-free.”
The research behind those clinical decisions was on display at the scientific symposium held at Fred Hutch before the ribbon-cutting.
“We are here because of decades of hard work, driven by the science,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland at the symposium.
Speakers at the symposium led the audience through the development of immunotherapy through ongoing clinical trials at Fred Hutch. Highlights included:
The new Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic was launched with support from SCCA, the Hutch’s clinical care partner, and Juno Therapeutics, the cellular immunotherapy biotech that is a spinoff of Fred Hutch, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Fred Hutch has licensed to Juno intellectual property for potential treatments that the company seeks to commercialize.
The “most remarkable thing” about immunotherapy, said Juno CEO Hans Bishop, who spoke at the symposium, “is how extraordinary some of those early successes are, yet we know so little about the mechanisms.”
The new Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic will allow researchers to study each patient extensively to figure out these riddles and improve experimental immunotherapies, speakers said. Hutch immunotherapy researcher Dr. Stan Riddell pointed out that this is just what Storb and his colleagues did during their development of transplantation.
“This [new immunotherapy] unit is designed to help find the principles of using the immune system to treat and cure cancer,” Riddell said. This type of in-depth research “was and is the reason transplant was so successful,” he said.
“What we need is a place to do the kind of intensive research we need to cure [patients’] disease,” Riddell said.
“And that’s what this is all about.”
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Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @sejkeown.