How techies in Washington state can help find cancer cures

The Hutch's Dr. Gary Gilliland speaks at GeekWire Summit highlighting innovations in the Northwest and beyond
Dr. Gary Gilliland speaks at the 2017 GeekWire Summit in Seattle
“Let’s be the state that’s known for working together to implement curative approaches to cancer,” Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland said today in a moderated talk at the 2017 GeekWire Summit in Seattle. GeekWire / Dan Delong

Ed. note: This story was updated on Oct. 11.

Washington state is known as the home for innovation in aviation and in coffee. But could it be known as the capital of cancer cures, too?

That’s the question — and the challenge — that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland posed to hundreds of tech industry and business leaders today at the 2017 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

“Let’s be the state that’s known for working together to implement curative approaches to cancer,” Gilliland said in a moderated talk with GeekWire journalists Alan Boyle and Clare McGrane.

The annual two-day summit is a mecca for the heavy hitters and up-and-comers in innovation and business from the Northwest and around the world. The focus: what’s coming next in the fast-changing world of tech. Featured speakers include Microsoft CEO (and Fred Hutch board of trustees member) Satya Nadella,  Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, tech entrepreneurs, investors and top researchers in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to cancer.

Gilliland said that it is exactly the people in the summit audience who Fred Hutch scientists need to help them bring cures to all patients with cancer — and bring about the bold prediction he made two years ago that curative therapies for most if not all cancers are possible by 2025.

“We’re sitting in an environment that’s like nowhere else in the world,” Gilliland said, citing the Seattle area’s powerhouse industries not only in biomedical research but in cloud computing and data science.

Given the rapid pace of technological progress in genomic sequencing and genetic engineering, Gilliland said, it’s imperative that biomedical researchers work hand in hand with those who can help them store and analyze data, make the data work for patients, and bring new therapies to market.

“We’re very eager to engage partners,” Gilliland said.

Microsoft’s Nadella echoed this sentiment in a talk on the summit’s final day. To reach the “audacious goal” Gilliland has set, “tech will play a huge role,” and tools for making huge data sets usable is critical, Nadella said.

“One of the big rate limiters in cancer research is now to take research that’s happening and make it comprehensible for researchers at Fred Hutch and elsewhere to make new hypotheses,” Nadella said in an onstage conversation with GeekWire Co-founder and Editor Todd Bishop.

‘No excuses. No patient left behind.’

Gilliland said that the progress he’s witnessed in the past two years since his widely reported statement on impending cures made him confident that it is still true — particularly the advances he’s seen in immunotherapy, the strategy that involves harnessing the powers of a patient’s immune system to eliminate their cancer.

There’s been a big increase in the rate of oncology drugs approved in recent years, Gilliland said. One of these is the first genetically engineered immune-cell therapy for cancer. He said a similar experimental approach in clinical trials at the Hutch has shown “stunning” promise, including over 90 percent complete remission rates in patients with certain advanced leukemias.

“We’ve had extraordinary breakthroughs,” Gilliland said. “I’m quite optimistic about the opportunities we have moving forward.”

Gilliland’s optimism has inspired some of the key partners the Hutch has in the Washington state tech community — like Microsoft’s Nadella.

“What Gary and team are doing at Fred Hutch is truly inspiring to me — to have even that goal to solve cancer by the turn of the next decade,” Nadella said in his address at the summit.

But there are also challenges in that, Gilliland said, and that’s where partnerships with tech innovators can be so helpful. He cited a few examples — and posed a few questions:

The cost of sequencing a human genome has plummeted dramatically in recent years, Gilliland said, making it cheaper now to sequence a patient’s genome than to store that sequence in the cloud. But there’s not enough cloud storage space available to store every American patient’s genome – so how can we overcome this?

It’s hard for patients to find the treatment approach that is most likely to offer them a cure, or to find the most promising clinical trial for them. At the same time, it’s hard for researchers conducting clinical trials to find eligible patients to enroll. Could there be data-driven, tech-based ways to bring these two groups together — and help more people survive their cancers?

He challenged those who are skeptical of the timeline he’s proposed to put doubts aside and help researchers make breakthroughs happen.

“Let’s get out there and do it. No excuses. No patient left behind,” he said.

Fred Hutch President and Director speaks with journalists Alan Boyle and Clare McGrane at the 2017 GeekWire Summit about the latest developments in cancer research. Credit: GeekWire

Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.

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