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Seattle cancer center bets big on experimental T-cell immunotherapy

🕐 3 min read

Suzanne McCarroll, a television news reporter in Denver, had been in remission from non-Hodgkin lymphoma for almost eight years when the cancer returned in May 2015. She had a stem-cell transplant, but the disease came back again in January. What, she wondered, should she do now?

After talking to her doctor and her brother, a neurobiologist at Harvard, McCarroll enrolled in an early-stage clinical trial using immunotherapy at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Researcher Center in Seattle. “It’s like taking your car to a mechanic,” said McCarroll. “At some point, you have to trust someone who knows more than you do.”

The trial was testing CAR T-cell therapy – in which immune cells are removed from the patient, genetically engineered to attack cancer cells and then reinfused – in patients with leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. On Thursday, test results showed that McCarroll was in remission and could head home to Colorado. McCarroll, who is 60, was one of the first patients treated at a new outpatient clinic at the cancer center, which is scheduled to open officially in December.

Gary Gilliland, president and director of the cancer center, said in an interview that the clinic is unique in many ways. He said that it is the only stand-alone immunotherapy clinic that focuses primarily on using engineered T cells – and employs a strategy pioneered by Hutchinson to increase the T-cells’ cancer-fighting ability.

After removing T cells from the patients, he said, scientists remove nonessential immune cells, resulting in a specific ratio of engineered helper and killer T cells. Hutchinson scientists believe the approach increases the growth of the cells when they are returned to patients, and may be the reason for the center’s impressive results in clinical trials involving patients with blood cancers.

In creating the clinic, Gilliland said, the cancer center is sending a broader message: “We believe these therapies have curative potential.”

Immunotherapy has emerged as the hottest field in medicine, with much of the focus on two new types of treatments: CAR T-cell therapy, which is still experimental and has mostly been used for blood cancers, and “checkpoint inhibitors,” which has been approved for solid tumors, such as melanoma and lung cancer. Researchers are encouraged by the results, but caution that much more needs to be understood to make immunotherapy work for all patients and to stave off relapse, which is still a major issue. Combinations of the approaches are now being tested at Hutchinson and across the country.

The new Hutchinson facility will be named the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic, reflecting $30 million in previous donations made by Jackie and Mike Bezos for the cancer center’s immunotherapy work, Gilliland said. (Their son, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) The contributions weren’t used for the clinic, which cost $7.2 million. Philanthropists have emerged as a major force in funding immunotherapy, with Sean Parker, Michael Bloomberg and Stanley Kimmel, among others, making sizable contributions to other medical centers.

David Maloney, who is the clinic’s first medical director, said the new facility will allow physicians to closely monitor patients for potential safety problems and to learn why some patients respond to immunotherapy and others don’t. The new clinic also will allow researchers to ramp up the number of clinical trials. He said the clinic is “patient centered,” with services and physicians coming to the patient, rather than the other way around, and with easy movement between the clinic and the research lab.

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