The emails fall like a steady rain in Dr. Gary Gilliland’s inbox. They arrive daily from strangers reaching out to the president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the hopes that he will know about new treatments or cures that will help them, their sick child, their beloved spouse or friend. Gilliland responds to each one, knowing what’s at stake. Some he can help; many he cannot. Every email, he said, reminds him of the urgency of making discoveries that will save lives.
On Thursday, Fred Hutch’s quest for cures was propelled forward with a $35 million gift from the Bezos family. It is the single largest philanthropic commitment to Fred Hutch in the center’s 41-year history.
“What we are really giving is the gift of time for all those people who will benefit from new treatments and cures. It’s the gift of more hugs, more graduations and more moments,” said Jackie Bezos. “Mike and I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of the Hutch scientists over the years. President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland is leading an extraordinary team, and we wanted to invest in his vision and enable him to have flexible resources to recruit more stars.”
The gift comes two years after Gilliland took the helm of Fred Hutch — and two years after he boldly declared that scientists would find cures for most, if not all, cancers in the next decade. A countdown clock outside his office is a constant reminder of that ambitious goal.
“This gift is an honor and a huge responsibility,” he said. “We will use this in ways that can have the highest impact in finding cures for cancer.”
The Bezos family is offering this unprecedented gift to help Fred Hutch achieve its top strategic aim ― identifying and attracting more world-class talent to lead and propel the research priorities at the core of the Hutch’s new strategic plan. In consultation with the leadership team, Gilliland plans to focus the gift on areas with the potential for huge impact:
This gift recognizes the Hutch’s tradition of researchers working collaboratively, bringing together the brightest minds from different areas to find answers to the most vexing questions. It also represents a push into bold, new research areas and expedites work currently underway, Gilliland said.
“The key to any leading innovator in academic research and medicine is that you don’t rest on your laurels. These opportunities we’re looking at with the Bezos family’s support are centered on investing in promising science and recruiting new leaders who will take us to the next level.”
The Bezos family’s contribution is a testament to the vision Gilliland has brought to his two years leading Fred Hutch, said former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, chair of Fred Hutch’s board of trustees.
“Gary is a brilliant leader and this gift affirms the Bezos family’s confidence in him and in Fred Hutch,” Gregoire said. “It comes at a particularly poignant time with the proposed White House budget cuts to funding from the National Institutes of Health. While private donations could never make up for the loss of NIH funding, gifts such as this are essential, allowing Fred Hutch to continue with its lifesaving work. We are profoundly grateful to the family. I can also say that as a cancer survivor myself, it provides hope for patients that more cures are on the way and Fred Hutch will not waver in determination to find them.”
Former President Jimmy Carter’s advanced melanoma was seemingly eradicated with an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda), one of a class of breakthrough therapies called checkpoint inhibitors. But he’s among the mere half whose tumors respond to the drug, Gilliland said. Solving the puzzle to understand in advance if a drug will help a patient — and how best to treat the patients it doesn’t — is where data science comes in.
“The opportunity with immunotherapy is that it’s potentially curative,” Gilliland said. “It has to do with the person themselves and their own genetic composition.”
In the past, research has focused on sequencing the cancer genome to look for mutations that can be targeted with therapies. But the next generation of research, he said, will seek to understand the patient’s genome — not their tumor’s — and the variations that will predict response to immunotherapy.
“If we can understand that, we can select patients who are 100 percent likely to respond instead of 50 percent. And then we can understand the 50 percent who don’t and how to manage that,” he said.
But understanding that will require huge data sets. “This is the realm of advanced analytics and cloud-scale computing,” Gilliland said.
Beyond helping individual patients, analyzing the full landscape of available data ― from medical and insurance claims to geospatial, environmental and even social-networking data sets ― will illuminate our understanding of populations, yielding insights that could inform public-health and disease- prevention strategies.
Fred Hutch is uniquely positioned to lead the way in big data due to the confluence of innovation in and around Seattle, Gilliland noted.
“We are sitting in the backyard of Microsoft, Amazon and others. It impacts not just how we think about data science but how we think about disease and cancer,” he said. “Our goal is to have the best biomedical data-science capability in the country and we’ll have the resources to bring in the best leader. The Bezos gift will enable that.”
When actor Michael Douglas announced he had cancer in 2010, most people didn’t realize that it was likely linked to human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause head and neck cancers, such as Douglas had, as well as other cancers.
But millions of people worldwide are affected by cancers caused by viruses. In Uganda, Fred Hutch researchers see the impact every day through a partnership with the Uganda Cancer Institute. There, Ugandan physicians and their Fred Hutch partners treat patients with Burkitt lymphoma, a virally induced cancer that mainly targets young children.
Patients’ own immune systems could hold the key to curing these cancers, Gilliland said. “(Virus-caused cancers) are particularly attractive targets for treatments that activate the immune system, such as drugs that target immune-checkpoint regulators,” he said.
Today there is a vaccine available to prevent HPV. Fred Hutch’s Dr. Denise Gallloway did critical work that laid the foundation for it. Since 2006, when the vaccine was introduced, there’s already been a dramatic reduction in HPV infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More research leading to a deeper understanding of pathogen-related cancers will pave the way for other vaccines and cures to be developed, Gilliland said.
“We have a unique opportunity at the Hutch to attract a nation-leading expert in this area to lead our efforts and coalesce our faculty — that collectively have experience in virology, immunology and cancer biology — to develop preventive and curative approaches to cancers, not only in the U.S. but worldwide, that are caused by viruses,” he said.
Thirty-three years ago, Laura DiLella was a young mother with acute myeloid leukemia who came to Fred Hutch for a bone marrow transplant. Even though it was a risky procedure and meant being away from home for months, she chose to have a transplant over chemotherapy because she thought it would give her the best shot at getting to see seeing her young son, Jimmy, grow up.
It did. She not only saw him grow up and get married, but watched him become a parent himself. “I’m just filled with gratitude and disbelief at all the advances and what they’ve accomplished in 30 years,” she said when she returned to Fred Hutch several years ago to say thank you.
In the decades since Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas pioneered bone marrow transplantation, researchers in the labs at Fred Hutch have been boldly exploring new ways to use the immune system to cure cancers. Investigators developed a method to multiply the low numbers of blood stem cells in a unit of umbilical cord blood, allowing cord blood to be a viable transplant option for people who can’t find a matched adult marrow donor. And they’ve led the way in harnessing the body’s own immune system to cure cancer through immunotherapy, an area where the Bezos family was an early investor.
Back when they gave their first major gift to Fred Hutch in 2009, Jackie Bezos said, “Our commitment to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is an educated bet on the next forefront in medical science and those who we feel are best positioned to capitalize on it.”
It’s a bet that has paid off with incredibly promising trial results. Lymphoma survivor Stephanie Florence was successfully treated for her cancer with immunotherapy on a Fred Hutch clinical trial and is now cancer free.
“I had a complete response (to the treatment),” Florence said in an earlier interview. “It was magical. It was a miracle.”
The family’s gift came at a time when promising experimental immunotherapies, like the genetically engineered, cancer-targeting T cells that cured Florence, were just a dream, said Gilliland. “Now it’s a dream realized.”
When Gilliland talks about finding cures for most cancers within the decade, he leans forward in his chair and becomes more animated. He’s gotten some criticism for those who don’t think it’s possible, but he truly believes it. And he feels it whenever he talks to patients.
He recently spoke with a stage 4 breast cancer patient who has two young children, ages 5 and 9. “She’s hopeful — but also realistic that she may die before her children get to high school,” he said.
He wants to find cures for her and other patients — now and those to come. There is no time to waste.
The newly opened Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic is named in recognition of the family’s past generosity and early investment in immunotherapy research. Nestled on the sixth floor of the main outpatient building of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner, the clinic looks out over the Fred Hutch research buildings where tomorrow’s breakthroughs are being born. At the clinic’s December opening ceremony, it was Florence who cut the ribbon. The research at Fred Hutch, she said, “has given me my life.”
With the new gift, Gilliland’s thoughts again turn to all that will be possible and all the other lives that will be saved. “A gift like this,” he said, “most of all offers our patients and faculty inspiration and hope.”
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.
Fred Hutch staff writer Susan Keown contributed to this article.