Why Fred Hutch President Gary Gilliland is enlisting techies to defeat cancer by 2025

Photo of Gary Gilliland
Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, stands by his prediction that most cancers will be curable by 2025. Photo by Alan Boyle / GeekWire

Editor’s Note: GeekWire Aerospace and Science Editor Boyle recently interviewed Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland about his vision for the future and why partnerships between research and tech industry innovators are essential to curing cancer. Boyle’s story for GeekWire, a national technology news website, is reprinted here with permission.

Gilliland joined Boyle and Clare McGrane on Oct. 10 for a Fireside Chat at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. One of the premier technology conferences in the U.S., the event gathers more than 800 innovators, entrepreneurs, business executives, and tech leaders. Microsoft CEO and Fred Hutch Board of Trustees member Satya Nadella will also be a featured speaker at this year’s summit, which runs Oct. 9–11 in Seattle, Washington.

The president and director of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Gary Gilliland, is bringing big-data experts on board to make good on his controversial prediction that there could be cures and therapies for “most, if not all, human cancers” by 2025.

Those experts include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Mike Clayville, a vice president at Amazon Web Services, both of whom serve on Fred Hutch’s board of trustees.

Gilliland, one of the featured speakers at the upcoming GeekWire Summit, says “big data is going to be hugely important for the next steps” in the fight against cancer, which will focus on leveraging a huge amount of biological data to personalize cancer treatments.

“Every tumor has thousands of unique mutations that are like a fingerprint. … There are as many types of cancer as there are people who have cancer. Every single tumor is different,” he explained. That means treatments can be tailored to each patient’s unique mutations — for example, a particular mutation in lung cancer might make a certain drug work better for patients with that mutation.

"(T)he size of the data sets this generates could be on the order of a terabyte per person."

But some of the strategies being pioneered at the Hutch take personalized medicine even further.

One is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, also known as CAR T. It involves genetically engineering T-cells — the immune cells that fight maladies such as the common cold — to target specific mutations on cancer cells, Gilliland told GeekWire in a recent interview.

“The beauty of doing that is because they’re mutant proteins, they won’t exist in any cell except the tumor cell,” he said. That means CAR T treatments can be personalized based on a patient’s unique cancer mutations. It also means they won’t harm healthy cells.

CAR T therapies are one of the hottest frontiers in cancer research, and the Hutch is in on it. Just this month, New York-based Mustang Bio announced that it's licensing one of the Hutch’s CAR-T technologies to fight lymphoma, with clinical trials due to start soon in Seattle.

Fred Hutch spin-out Juno Therapeutics is working to commercialize similar treatments and just opened a giant new office and research space to fuel that work.

Techniques like CAR T therapy and advanced gene sequencing hold the promise of personalizing cancer treatment on a patient-by-patient basis. But identifying a cancer cell’s fingerprint will require data analysis on a scale that Microsoft’s Nadella and Amazon’s Clayville know all too well.

“This is going to have to get into the cloud-based computational space,” Gilliland said. “That’s where we can get in-kind support, because the size of the data sets this generates could be on the order of a terabyte per person.”

Gilliland has seen many aspects of the fight against cancer over the past three decades, as a researcher at Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and as an executive at Merck & Co., one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. Even then, Gilliland had his eye on the Hutch.

“I was so envious … looking at the Hutch and all the things that it’s accomplished,” he said.

From its very start, more than 40 years ago, the Hutch was a pioneer in bone marrow transplants and other innovative cancer treatments. Gilliland upped the ante soon after becoming the center’s president and director in 2015, when he told a Seattle conference that it’d be plausible to have cures and therapies for most if not all human cancers within a decade.

Today, Gilliland admits that he got “tons of pushback” over that prediction.

"We should kill ourselves to make this happen."

“When people push on me about it, my response is, ‘You know something? Quit wasting your time and my time talking about whether you think this is hyperbole, or overpromising and underdelivery. Get out there and frickin’ do this.’ … We should kill ourselves to make this happen,” he said.

Gilliland said CAR T therapies could make his prediction come true. Not everyone responds to the current crop of treatments, but there’s been enough success to press onward with 2025 as the goal.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can we cure people.’ It’s how do we cure everybody, and don’t leave a single patient behind in the treatments for cancer. You can pick a number, but that seems to me to be a reasonable time frame, and that’s the place to put the stake in the ground,” he said.

Hundreds of researchers are using cellular-level and molecular-level strategies at the Hutch to battle not only cancer, but HIV/AIDS, influenza, arthritis, and other diseases as well. And the organization is on an upward trajectory, thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars in contributions from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his family.

But Gilliland recognizes that more needs to be done, especially on the tech front.

Photo of Martine Aubert working
Hutch researcher Martine Aubert is working on a gene-editing technique to attach the DNA of the herpes simplex virus. Photo by Alan Boyle / GeekWire

“The bad news is that we were way behind, and had a few things that were broken,” he said. “The good news is that, because of that, we’re just going to jump straight to the cloud.”

To jump-start that transition, Gilliland said he and his team are making arrangements with Amazon and Microsoft for computer services as well as “in-kind support if they want to send people here to do training.”

The Hutch is also setting up a series of innovation research centers to focus on fields such as immunotherapy and cancers caused by viruses and other pathogens. Gilliland said the centers are designed to take cross-disciplinary approaches to cancer, including large-scale data analysis.

“One of them’s going to be a data-based integrated research center,” he said.

Gilliland recognizes that in order to cure most cancers by 2025, the discoveries made at the Hutch can’t stay confined to the lab. “That’s why it’s important to generate spin-out companies, to think about how to take what we’re creating and innovating and move it into the right space in the external environment,” he said.

The Hutch has spawned dozens of spin-outs over the past three decades, including relative newcomers such as Juno Therapeutics, Adaptive BiotechnologiesBlaze Bioscience, and Nohla Therapeutics.

Will the cancer research center’s drive to capitalize on big data spark a new wave of innovations and startups? The stakes are high — for patients and physicians, for Gilliland and the Hutch, and perhaps even for Seattle’s place on the tech frontier.

“We’re emerging as the epicenter for cancer therapy as it relates to the interface with big data,” Gilliland said. “If we don’t realize that potential, we’ve failed.”

GeekWire Aerospace and Science Editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of NBCNews.com, he is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." Follow him via CosmicLog.com, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and Google+.

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