EVERYTHING HAD FAILED KRISTIN KLEINHOFER. First, her body — invaded by leukemia in 2010. And then, her treatments — a chemotherapy slog that spanned parts of four years, causing infections, fevers, nausea, rashes, abscesses, jaundice and leaky heart valves, yet delivering just two temporary remissions.
By autumn 2014, the leukemia was back. Kleinhofer saw one shot at survival: immunotherapy. She learned that scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center were genetically modifying patients' immune systems — specifically their T cells — to seek and destroy precisely her type of advanced disease. She landed a spot in the Seattle trial. She received one IV bag of her own re-engineered immune cells.
It worked. The leukemia became undetectable in her blood. That allowed her, three months later, to undergo a successful double cord blood transplant at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch's treatment arm. She's remained in remission since.
Her path to remission relied on two pivotal collaborations: Chats among three physicians at three medical centers ushered her into the Hutch trial, and a cross-continent partnership that began years earlier laid some of the critical, scientific groundwork that kept Kleinhofer alive.
That alliance between Fred Hutch immunotherapy researcher Dr. Stan Riddell and German microbiologist and immunologist Dr. Dirk Busch began with a fellowship meant to encourage scientists from across the planet to join forces. After securing that funding, they linked their labs and minds eight years ago to better understand the unique behaviors of single T cells, and then use those cells in immunotherapies to attack cancers and infections in patients.
"Vice President [Joe] Biden was recently at the Hutch and this is one of his big ideas [for the Cancer Moonshot]: How do we get scientists to share more openly?" Riddell said. "I think [in teaming with Busch] we moved the field forward in ways that are still playing out."
They also proved that collaboration could thrive amid the usual fight for research dollars — a reality Riddell also mentioned to Biden.
"Funding these kinds of initiatives is unique and actually something that's missing in science," Riddell said. "[Our partnership] is an example of the kind of success we can have in taking this approach."
In addition to Biden's push to shatter silos, the vice president listed crucial areas of focus, including immunotherapy, precision medicine, public-private partnerships and data sharing.
At Fred Hutch, thought leaders in those areas opt to brainstorm with counterparts at other institutions to speed cancer cures.
While researchers often work solo, they realize their potential can be exponential when they band with peers. But that requires scientists to set aside any sense of competition to link with the best person, regardless of where they work.
In the realm of cancer research — where many organizations may chase the same dollars — these covenants are built on openness, trust and the humbling knowledge that lives are on the line, researchers say. Rivalries, they know, tend to slow the process and the cures.
For patients like Kleinhofer, such collaborations can ultimately erase late-stage disease and sometimes change the course of science.
"That's why I feel very blessed — all these amazing doctors getting me back into remission," Kleinhofer said. "They all want to fight for your life."