This one was for the kids.
The Hutch Holiday Gala, the single largest fundraiser for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, attracted 800 guests to the Seattle Sheraton Saturday for an evening of music, laughter, cocktails and dazzling attire. But underneath the glitz and glamour was a deadly serious goal: fast-forwarding cures for the littlest patients — children diagnosed with cancer.
As in previous years, Fred Hutch donors gave from the heart, with funds coming in from ticket sales, sponsorships, raffles, two auctions and Help the Hutch, a lively paddle-raiser which brought in donations from the floor. Thanks to a generous $4 million challenge gift by the Hughes family, donations totaled more than $13 million. A final tally will be announced in days to come.
“The words ‘you have cancer’ are terrifying,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch director and president, in his opening remarks. “That fear is compounded when cancer strikes a child.”
Sadly, each year, nearly 16,000 children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer and nearly 2,000 die from it. Yet funding for pediatric cancers represents only 2 to 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s spending on cancer research. This lack of funding has created a dearth of knowledge when it comes to the diseases that affect children, some of which are so rare there are no known treatments. As a result, children are often treated with therapies designed for adults, subjecting them to a host of harrowing side effects that can sometimes last a lifetime.
Money from the gala, which featured music by the funk/soul legends Kool & the Gang, will be used to recruit world-class leaders in the field of pediatric oncology. It will also expand the research infrastructure at Fred Hutch to provide much-needed safe and effective therapies specifically for kids.
“We have reached a point where we can tailor therapies to the nuances of children’s diseases,” Gilliland said. “The impact of your support will be extraordinary.”
Though small, the pediatric cancer research program at Fred Hutch has had a unique advantage, Gilliland told the crowd.
“Pediatric and adult research happens side by side,” he said. “Pediatric research isn’t siloed. This was true in the early days of bone marrow transplantation and remains a key component in our success today. Our programs learn from each other. When parents have run out of options, researchers here have kept hope alive. We are known for innovative approaches, for thinking outside the box.”
Indeed, Fred Hutch has long focused on eradicating cancer in kids.
The research center established the world’s first dedicated pediatric bone marrow transplant clinic and received the first-ever pediatric oncology training grant from the National Institutes of Health. And, although currently only five Hutch labs are devoted to childhood cancers, the center's scientists have made a tremendous impact on childhood cancer survival rates and created a number of innovative tools and therapies.
Bone marrow transplants, pioneered at Fred Hutch, changed the outlook for blood cancers and led to a wide range of lifesaving therapies for children with cancer and related diseases. Five-year survival rates for kids with certain types of leukemia have gone from less than 10 percent to around 90 percent in the last five decades. Innovative new work in T-cell immunotherapies offer even more promise.
Researchers at Fred Hutch and its partner Seattle Children’s have helped to develop Tumor Paint, a molecular “flashlight” that lights up cancer cells to make it easier for surgeons to remove the disease without doing harm to the patient. Originally designed by pediatric oncologist Dr. Jim Olson for children with brain cancer, it’s currently in clinical trials in both adults and children.
The Hutch is also home to physician-scientist Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, a world-renowned leader in childhood acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, whose research has led to a much better understanding of how the genetic mutations that drive the disease in children are different from those that drive AML in adults. His team at the Hutch is nationally known for its expertise and genetic testing for AML, and Meshinchi is the leader of the TARGET AML Initiative, a major priority for the Children’s Oncology Group.
Another top pediatric researcher is Dr. Colleen Delaney, whose work with young patients receiving umbilical cord blood transplants has led to a new technology that multiplies stem cells from cord blood to facilitate the transplantation process in patients of all ages. Cord blood transplantation is a lifesaving alternative to bone marrow transplantation, particularly for those who are unable to find a match.
“We have access to both pediatric and adult patients and we can develop products that can cross over,” Delaney said in a powerful video featuring the Hughes family and many of the Hutch researchers that focus on children’s cancers.
“Things that are happening in the adult bone marrow transplant world can be translated to pediatrics.” she explained. “But just as importantly, we can innovate in pediatrics and have that translate to the adult world.”
Dr. Lauri Burroughs, a Fred Hutch transplantation researcher and pediatric oncologist, said children’s cancers can be challenging because the individual diseases can impact a relatively small number of patients.
“But together there are actually an enormous number of people that are impacted by life-threatening cancers or life-threatening immune deficiency,” she said, “It’s not that you’re just helping one small group. You’re actually helping thousands of children over time.”
Christine Gregoire, former Washington state governor and current chair of Fred Hutch’s board of trustees, spoke of the need for nuanced cancer treatments that don’t saddle children with a raft of serious side effects that can follow them into adulthood.
She also emphasized the need for donor support to fill the gaps left by federal funding and the pharmaceutical industry.
“The National Institutes of Health allocates between 2 and 4 percent of their budget for pediatric cancers, with much of those dollars earmarked for the most commonly diagnosed diseases and relatively little directed to research into better treatments for currently incurable childhood cancers,” she said. “The only way to help these families is to leverage private philanthropy.”
Kelly O’Brien, vice president of Development at Fred Hutch, said the event was extraordinary, calling it “the most successful Gala ever.”
“There were many new supporters in the room, and there was incredible donor support, not only from the Hughes family but from other patient families,” she said. “More than 300 guests raised their paddles and many more donations were made online or through pre-event donations. We are so appreciative of the amazing generosity shown to the Hutch.”
Contributions from the live auction — which included everything from a private dinner for eight aboard the world's largest private residential yacht to tickets to “Hamilton” on Broadway —totaled $556,000. A Yellowstone Club resort package alone brought in $200,000.
Last year’s Gala, which focused on Fred Hutch’s 40 years of innovation, raised $6.7 million, including a $2.5 million gift from Leonard and Norma Klorfine, and established three endowed chairs for research.
Over the last 41 years, the event has raised more than $118 million for Hutch research.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.