Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a first-class organization dedicated to the elimination of cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death. The following is an original piece by the president and director of Fred Hutch, Dr. Gary Gilliland.
For decades, I’ve studied cancer and treated patients affected by these diseases. But I’ve never been more excited about the future than I am today.
The reason: emerging treatments that harness the power of patients’ own immune systems to treat and, in some instances, cure cancer. Immunotherapies represent one of the most exciting advances in cancer therapy — ever. And I know many, many of my colleagues worldwide feel the same way.
As we stand at the cusp of cures for many types of cancer, there is immense opportunity for donors who share my sense of urgency. We still have so much to learn.
Imagine treatments that could help heal patients while sparing them invasive surgeries and the broadly destructive repercussions of chemotherapies and radiation. Imagine treatments that could be given just once and the patient walks out of the clinic and is done. We are closer to making this the reality than many thought possible even just a few years ago.
We’ve learned to use the immune system to go after cancers directly. Teams of researchers at institutions around the world — including the one I lead — are working to genetically engineer a patient’s own immune cells to be better at recognizing cancers as foreign and killing them. And we are seeing exceptionally promising results: In some cases, tumors melt away and patients with advanced disease — patients for whom we had no other viable treatment options — go into prolonged remission.
On August 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first of these therapies, a type called CAR T-cell therapy, for children and young adults with advanced leukemias. It’s a very exciting time, but there is so much more to be done.
As we stand at the cusp of cures for many types of cancer, there is immense opportunity for donors who share my sense of urgency. We still have so much to learn. The dramatic responses to T-cell therapy we’ve seen only occur in some of the patients treated. There are many types of cancer that have proved resistant to this strategy. And some immunotherapies can rev up the immune system too much, causing unwanted side effects. Understanding how to make and use these therapies in ways that safely help many more patients is a matter of continued hard work and, critically, resources — exactly like those donors provide.
Case in point: At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where I serve as president and director, we’ve been fortunate to have the partnership of impact-oriented donors who have made key investments in promising research that was still too early stage to be funded through federal grants. These gifts continue to pay enormous dividends — in knowledge gained and in lives saved — as the first generations of immunotherapies come into the clinic. And we are hardly an isolated example: My colleagues at cancer centers worldwide can point to their own examples of donor leadership that has made all the difference in bringing new ideas to life.
The urgency I feel to develop cures comes from patients who are dying of cancer as I write this because we cannot get therapies out fast enough. By 2025, I truly feel that curative therapies for most, if not all, cancers will be possible. I’ve taken some criticism for making such a bold statement, but I stand by it. This is because I know we now have the science. We just need the additional resources.
We owe it to people facing cancer to get this done. If we don’t, shame on us.
Dr. Gary Gilliland is president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
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