Last year was a banner year for cancer and other medical research in the U.S. The first commercial T-cell therapies were approved to treat cancer. The first gene editing experiment in a human body was performed. And federal initiatives kicked off to help scientists harness massive data sets to speed advances.

But much remains to be done, and 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting time for donors who want to make an impact on the development of cures for deadly diseases. We asked experts at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to name research innovations we should watch for in the coming year. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Cancer Immunotherapy

“2018 should be a watershed year for therapy of cancer with engineered T cells,” said immunotherapy researcher Dr. Phil Greenberg.

On the heels of the progress we saw in 2017, genetically engineered immune cell therapy will continue to evolve. With the help of philanthropists, researchers will be studying ways to build on early successes to create next-gen therapies, minimize side effects and bring the promise of this approach to more patients — including those with more common solid tumors, like cancers of the lung and breast.

“The breadth of malignancies that can be targeted with T cells will increase, and the use of existing and developing technologies to enhance the activity of these T cells will make this therapy increasingly useful and effective,” Greenberg said.

2. Genetically Targeted Drugs

“I think there will be more drugs approved, hopefully in the next year if not the year after, that will link a genomic feature to a drug,” said prostate cancer researcher Dr. Pete Nelson.

Last year, the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab was approved by the FDA to treat any tumor that bears a certain genetic alteration. That was the first approval of a drug for patients based on genomics rather than the organ in which the tumor began, a convergence of immunotherapy and precision oncology advances.

Progress will only accelerate as researchers are equipped to pinpoint more genetic features that could be good targets for drugs — and the specific patients for whom such precisely aimed therapies will be effective.

3. Gene Therapy

“I would be on the lookout for reports of new and increasingly ambitious attempts to correct genetic disorders through gene editing and gene correction strategies,” said protein engineering researcher Dr. Barry Stoddard.

With the FDA’s recent approval of a gene therapy to treat a rare form of inherited blindness, more investors will be interested in supporting clinical trials of this cutting-edge strategy, said gene therapy researcher Dr. Jennifer Adair.

At the same time, she and other researchers will be working on innovative ways to keep these therapies’ costs in check.

“I predict more attention on affordability of gene therapy treatments, which will push research in accessibility, portability and simplified delivery,” Adair said.

Scientists are making incredible strides toward better, safer treatments for cancer and other deadly diseases. Reaching this goal requires a convergence of different expertise, new research methods and strong data science — and the partnership of impact-oriented philanthropists to accelerate discovery for the benefit of as many people as possible.


Original contribution by Susan Keown and Rachel Tompa, writers for Fred Hutch News Service.