Treatment Research

Immunotherapy

Dr. Stephan Matthias pipetting

Dr. Matthias Stephan showing an implant he designed that concentrates immune cells directly at tumor sites where they can unite to clear away the adjacent tumor.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

Fred Hutch is at the forefront of a fundamental shift in the way cancer is treated and cured. Our researchers have discovered new ways to empower a patient’s own immune system to do what it does naturally — fight disease — with far fewer side effects than conventional cancer treatments.

Our Nobel Prize-winning work on bone marrow transplantation provided the first definitive and reproducible example of the human immune system's power to cure cancer. Today, we continue to lead this revolutionary field, called immunotherapy.  

We've already used immunotherapy to boost survival rates for patients with leukemia and other blood cancers. And we've shown it has promise for treating many other cancers. These targeted therapies have the potential to one day replace blood stem cell transplantation as a cure for many blood cancers and become the first cures for some of the most challenging solid tumors, including lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

The Promise of Immunotherapy

The tiny white cloud at the tip of this test tube is made of cancer-fighting T cells, enough, Fred Hutch researchers are finding, to melt away some tumors.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is an innovative treatment approach that empowers the human immune system to overcome cancer and other debilitating diseases.

The immune system — a complex conglomerate that includes disease-fighting cells and proteins — is well-known for its remarkable ability to locate, recognize and attack invaders like the common cold. However, the immune system is not always able to eliminate cancer cells when they form. And once malignant tumors develop, they can use a variety of evasion tactics to outwit the immune system.

Thanks to continually evolving research, scientists have discovered new ways to tap into the immune system's inherent disease-fighting power and give it the upper hand against cancer.

The most exciting part? Because immunotherapies harness the patient’s own immune system, they are far less likely to produce the side effects common to traditional cancer treatments.
 

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Lifesaving discoveries

Some of the world’s most significant immunotherapy breakthroughs have occurred at Fred Hutch. Hutch researchers were the first to show that rare disease-fighting cells called T cells can be extracted from patients, multiplied in large quantities and infused back into patients and the first to show that an immune booster after T-cell infusion could enhance survival and help shrink tumors. Our efforts have established that these methods can boost the body's ability to fight viral diseases, such as cytomegalovirus and HIV, and cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma and breast cancer. Over the past decade, we have expanded our immunotherapy approaches through laboratory research and clinical trials to treat even more types of cancer.

Some of our breakthrough research:

  • Fred Hutch researchers were the first to use a melanoma patient’s own cloned T cells as the sole treatment to put his cancer into long-term remission. Two years after a 52-year-old Oregon man received an infusion of 5 billion copies of his own CD4+ T cells that targeted his tumor, he continued to be cancer-free.
Dr. Stanley Riddell

Dr. Stanley Riddell

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

  • Drs. Stanley Riddell, David Maloney and Cameron Turtle have contributed important discoveries about precisely how to use T cells for cancer therapies. They are testing a kind of T-cell therapy using CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T cells, referring to a molecule engineered to enable these T cells to target the patient's disease.  A recent clinical trial using an advanced form of CAR T-cell therapy in patients with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia has shown promising, even dramatic responses.  By selecting the best T cells from each patient and carefully controlling the composition of treatments, our scientists are continuing to achieve more predictable, consistent and lasting therapeutic effects in patients.
  • Drs. Oliver Press and Brian Till are developing a similar CAR T-cell therapy that will be used for patients with certain lymphomas, and Dr. Riddell’s team is rapidly advancing toward a clinical trial of another CAR T-cell therapy targeting certain blood cancers as well as triple negative breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.
     
Dr. Phil Greenberg

Dr. Phil Greenberg

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

  • Drs. Phil Greenberg, Aude Chapuis, Dan Egan and their colleagues are currently conducting clinical trials to test the safety of administering specially engineered T cells to protect more blood stem cell transplant patients from a potentially life-threatening relapse. These therapeutic T cells target cells that carry a protein called WT1 that is partially responsible for cells becoming leukemic. The results to date have been encouraging.

  • The team is also expanding the trial to include leukemia patients not eligible for transplant, and they are planning to launch similar T-cell therapy trials for certain patients with non-small cell lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Dr. Seth Pollack is aiming a T-cell therapy squarely at a target called NY-ESO-1, which is found on soft tissue sarcomas as well as other tumors including some melanomas, leukemias, lung and prostate cancers.
     
Dr. Sylvia Lee

Dr. Sylvia Lee

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

  • Dr. Sylvia Lee and colleagues are looking at a type of T cell known as tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) as an option for treating melanoma and other cancers. Fred Hutch is one of only four centers in the U.S. to offer patients with advanced melanoma this TIL therapy, which leverages T cells that have already responded to a patient’s cancer but, for various reasons, haven’t overcome it. The treatment involves isolating the cells from a tumor biopsy, nurturing them in the lab to amplify the cell's anticancer activity, and then returning them to the patient, and it has led to striking responses in many patients with late-stage melanoma. Lee and her colleagues are now working to enhance this technique and extend it to patients with lung, bladder, and head and neck cancers.
  • Drs. Harlan Robins and Jason Bielas and their colleagues are also developing methods to precisely measure and characterize TILs to provide more accurate prognoses and help predict which patients are likely to respond to certain immunotherapies. The technology could also shed light on which T cells are most effective against tumors and how to design even more targeted immunotherapies in the future.
     
Dr. Oliver Press

Dr. Oliver Press

Photo fom Fred Hutch file

  • Antibody-based therapy uses small proteins to directly attack tumors or to allow therapeutic agents to be delivered directly to cancer cells, sparing healthy cells and thus minimizing side effects. Our researchers, including Dr. David Maloney, helped to pioneer the use of an antibody for the treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which led to the development of the first medication of its kind approved in the U.S. for the treatment of malignant disease — one of the world's top-selling cancer drugs, Rituxan.

  • Dr. Oliver Press leads the field in combining the precision of antibodies with the power of radiation, crafting new radioimmunotherapies that target radiation directly to cancer cells while avoiding healthy cells. Thanks to the work of his team and other Hutch researchers, we are able to offer clinical trials of antibody therapies not available anywhere else.
  • Dr. Damian Green hopes to ultimately offer a cure for multiple myeloma using a similar radioimmunotherapy approach to hunt down each cancer cell in a patient's body. The technique has potential for other cancers of the blood and bone marrow.
Dr. Matthias Stephan

Dr. Matthias Stephan

Photo by Scott Streble for Fred Hutch

  • Dr. Matthias Stephan, who works at the forefront of the nascent field of immunobioengineering, is developing a method to apply immunotherapy to solid malignancies like breast cancer by taking advantage of cutting-edge biomaterials. He has designed a tiny dissolving implant that concentrates immune cells directly at tumor sites where they can unite to clear away the adjacent tumor.

  • Our researchers have developed vaccines with the potential to not only destroy cancerous cells, but to prevent cancer relapse just as vaccination can prevent infections such as measles and polio. Dr. Nora Disis and Fred Hutch scientists and their colleagues are testing vaccines to treat and prevent the recurrence of late-stage breast and ovarian cancers. They are also developing vaccines that could be given to high-risk women to prevent breast cancer entirely.