Harnessing the Immune System to Fight Cancer and Other Diseases

The immune system has a remarkable ability to locate, recognize and attack invaders, including viruses such as the ones that cause colds and flu. But the immune system is not always able to eliminate cancer cells when they form. Malignant tumors, once they develop, use a variety of evasion tactics to outwit the immune system. Our scientists are discovering new ways to tap into the immune system’s inherent disease-fighting power to target diseased cells while avoiding healthy cells. 

In the 1970s, a team of Fred Hutch scientists provided the first definitive and reproducible example of the immune system defeating cancer. Led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, they pioneered bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for previously incurable blood cancers. This work won Thomas the Nobel Prize and helped spark a revolutionary new field of cancer treatment known as immunotherapy.

An Array of New Therapies

Our researchers are studying and developing several types of immunotherapies, each of which boosts the immune system in different ways. These therapies can be used alone or in combination with conventional treatments or with one another. Our areas of focus in immunotherapy include:

  • Adoptive T-cell therapies. These treatments involve transferring engineered disease-fighting immune cells into a patient. T-cell therapies are being developed for a wide range of malignancies, including skin cancers, sarcomas and cancers of the lung, kidney, breast, ovary, pancreas, colon, prostate, and head and neck.
  • Antibody-based therapies. These treatments use highly selective immune proteins called antibodies either alone, attached to chemotherapy or joined to a radioactive particle so they steer the radiation to cancer cells. 
  • Cancer vaccines. Vaccines are under development to prevent cancer as well as to treat cancer. Some vaccines prevent cancer by preventing viral infections that can cause cancer — such as the human papillomavirus, which can lead to cervical cancer. Other vaccines can potentially trigger an immune response to the cancer itself. 
  • Checkpoint inhibitors. The immune system has built-in mechanisms called checkpoints that keep it from attacking normal cells or switch off a legitimate immune reaction before it becomes too vigorous. Cancer cells often hijack these control mechanisms to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Checkpoint inhibitors, which interfere with that process, have shown success in some patients with melanoma and lung, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancer.

Our Translational Approach 

Our researchers work to speed promising new immunotherapies from the lab to the clinic and then transmit observations from the clinic back to the lab, in a continuous cycle of discovery. Immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch involves collaboration among experts not only in basic cancer biology and immune system function but also in statistics, data science, bioengineering, survivorship and more. Their work is supported by resources that include our Therapeutic Products Program, which develops and manufactures cell-based therapies and molecules for use in clinical trials.

Next-Generation Immunotherapy

Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic

This first-of-its-kind facility — opened in 2016 and staffed by a team of top clinicians, researchers, nurses and other specialists — has more than doubled our capacity to conduct clinical trials of immunotherapies. Located on the Fred Hutch campus, the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic is a 9,000-square-foot facility was designed specifically to care for patients who are participating in clinical studies. It enables extensive monitoring of each patient and faster and more extensive data gathering, all of which are helping to accelerate the development of the next generation of immune-based therapies.

Left: A patient receives an infusion of an immunotherapy drug at Fred Hutch. Right: Staff at the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic.
Left: A patient receives an infusion of an immunotherapy drug at Fred Hutch. Right: Staff at the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic.

Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Immunotherapy Clinical Trials

Patients play a vital role in translating scientific discoveries into new therapies. Immunotherapy is currently used primarily to treat advanced cancers, and most new immunotherapies are still experimental. Immunotherapy clinical trials help us test new and better immune-based approaches to treat more patients with more types of cancers. Our list of immunotherapy clinical trials is constantly growing and evolving, and patients have access to them through Fred Hutch.

Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center

The IIRC advances our immunotherapy research by increasing collaboration across Fred Hutch’s five scientific divisions. It facilitates the recruitment of new team members and funds early-stage projects in our programs that focus on cell therapy, transplant immunology, tumor microenvironment, immune checkpoint regulation, immunogenomics, therapeutic vaccines and more.

Latest Immunotherapy News

Dr. Lawrence Fong to lead Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center International expert will help scale up Fred Hutch’s clinical expertise in solid tumor immunotherapy October 12, 2023
Cancer care: From ‘sledgehammer’ to precision cellular therapy AACR progress report: new immunotherapies improve outcomes, but access to care and clinical trials for many still lags September 15, 2023
Dr. Philip Greenberg elected to National Academy of Sciences Fred Hutch expert in immunology has led development of T-cell therapies for cancer May 11, 2023
Improving immunotherapy for advanced prostate cancer Preclinical work identifies better target and recruits more immune cells to make CAR-T therapy work for solid tumors April 27, 2023