When immunologist Dr. Stanley Riddell was refining the genetic engineering of T cells as a potential treatment for lymphomas in 2011, a rising entrepreneur from Ireland, Dr. David Burke, was moving with his wife and their young son to Silicon Valley to take a position as director of engineering at Google.
Burke is now vice president of engineering at Google, overseeing continued development of its Android mobile phones. Riddell continues his pioneering research in immunotherapy at the Hutch.
While the two men had never met in person, they shared a connection to Fred Hutch’s daring approach to immunotherapy research that this year prompted Burke and his wife Louise O’Reilly to support that work. The heart of that connection was their eldest child, Dylan.
In late December of 2018, their normally energetic 9-year-old came down with flu-like symptoms, and for weeks after he was pale and feverish. After multiple visits to clinics came a chilling diagnosis, myelodysplastic syndrome — often called “smoldering leukemia.”
As Dylan’s disease rapidly progressed, Burke said he holed up in his basement and read more than 300 scientific papers on the disease. When it became clear that his son would need a bone marrow transplant, his research took him 800 miles north to Fred Hutch and its partner, Seattle Children’s.
Burke was introduced to the Hutch’s leading researchers in pediatric cancer — who are also physicians at the children’s hospital — including Drs. Soheil Meshinchi and Marie Bleakley, who holds the Gerdin Family Endowed Chair for Leukemia Research. Dylan received a successful transplant at Seattle Children’s 18 months ago, his recovery under the care of Dr. Ann Dahlberg.
Dylan’s doing fine.
“He gets up at 6:30 a.m. and exercises five days a week,” Burke said.
An electronics engineer with a penchant for solving problems, Burke said he was drawn to the culture of Fred Hutch, where laboratory innovation blends seamlessly with data science. He has consulted closely with Dylan’s doctors since he was first diagnosed in California, and during his months of recovery in Seattle. “When I am sticking my nose into treatment decisions, it’s the engineer in me wanting to do what in fact we’re all trying to do: understand what’s going wrong and how best to fix it,” he said.
'What I’ve learned in science is that some of the most important findings come from risk-taking.' — Dr. Stanley Riddell
Burke grew more intrigued with the Hutch as he flew up to Seattle twice a week to visit with Dylan during his long convalescence. With their eldest son on the mend, he and his wife decided to help advance immunotherapy research for both children and adults.
Their desire to help others, and their gratitude for Dylan’s care team led them to fund a new Fred Hutch endowed chair and to support clinical research that Dahlberg is leading.
In October, Riddell was selected as the first holder of the Burke O’Reilly Family Endowed Chair in Immunotherapy. “I was surprised, and incredibly honored by this,” said Riddell.
In addition to the recognition that accompanies the chair, Riddell will benefit from a stream of dollars to support his work. Their gift completed the Hutch’s endowed chair challenge, which inspired donors to establish an additional 20 of these honorary chairs during the past four years.
“It always helps to have support for your research program,” he said. “It allows you to take more risks, and what I’ve learned in science is that some of the most important findings come from risk-taking.”
Riddell has been a pioneer in the development of CAR T-cell therapy, which evolved out of early work in bone marrow transplantation that showed that transplant patients benefited from donor cells attacking remaining cancer cells — the so-called graft-vs.-leukemia effect. The work by Riddell and his team at Fred Hutch led to the 2013 launch of Juno Therapeutics, a spinoff that went on to develop a CAR T-cell therapy currently under Food and Drug Administration review as a treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (Juno is now a Bristol Myers Squibb company.)
Today Riddell’s lab is working to make CAR T-cell therapies even better and expand the repertoire of cancers it can treat. Based out of the Hutch’s new Steam Plant facility, he and his colleagues are zeroing in on multiple myeloma as the next likely new target for the approach. Their goals are to improve this immunotherapy’s safety, duration and ultimately, its cost. T-cell engineering has been most promising for blood cancers, but they are searching for biological routes and mechanisms that can be exploited to make it work against solid tumors — such as cancers of the lung, breast and pancreas.
Along with funding an endowed chair for Riddell, Burke and O’Reilly also provided a grant for research by Dylan’s physician, Hutch assistant professor Dahlberg. She is engaged in clinical research on the use of a chemotherapy drug for adults, azacitidine, to prevent recurrence of MDS or leukemia in children after transplants.
“I have had the privilege of caring for Dylan and getting to know the entire family in my clinic at Seattle Children's over the last year,” Dahlberg said. “I'm always blown away how, in the midst of the most harrowing times of their lives, families can also focus their attention on giving back and moving the field forward for children to come.”
While Dylan is thriving after his transplant, it has been a grueling ordeal for him and his family. Next-generation technologies like Riddell’s CAR T-cell engineering hold the promise of one day replacing the rigors of transplant with an infusion of genetically modified cells.
“I’m super-inspired by the work he is doing, harnessing the immune system and kind of teaching it,” Burke said. “It just feels like the future.”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.