There’s a tsunami on the horizon, and it has cancer “running scared.”
Those were the words from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research president Dr. Gary Gilliland, who spoke Tuesday at the WBBA’s Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle.
“It is actually plausible that in 10 years we will have cures and therapies for most, if not all, human cancers,” said Gilliland. “And I am excited about that.”
Gilliland painted an optimistic picture for the potential of curing cancer, pointing directly to the research from the Fred Hutch in the field of immuno-oncology — the idea of genetically training immune cells to “seek and destroy cancer.”
That’s the promise of Juno Therapeutics, a Fred Hutch spin-out which on Monday announced a whopping $1 billion investment from Celgene to accelerate its novel cancer research approach.
Gilliland, who joined the Fred Hutch last November, said that Juno’s approach for harnessing the immune system to fight cancer is truly groundbreaking. The technology is highly individualized, since it takes T-cells from a patient’s body and then re-engineers them to kill select cancer cells.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Gilliland. “You would not believe the types of responses that you see. People who have … widespread disease that has been refractory for every treatment that we have — in some cases on death’s door — and you give this cell-based therapy that was developed by Stan Riddell and Phil Greenberg at the Hutch and these tumors just melt away. People go into continuous, complete remission. You don’t need to keep giving the drug. You give it once. One infusion. And that’s it.”
With ideas like those flowing from the Fred Hutch and other cancer research institutions, Gilliland says there’s a real “urgency” to make the technologies a reality. And he thinks Seattle is uniquely positioned to be the “epicenter” of these cutting-edge breakthroughs in immuno-oncology.
“This is where it all started — that first Stem-cell transplant that helped inform us around the idea of the immune system to fight cancer,” he said.
Asked by WBBA president Chris Rivera whether the Fred Hutch might have any other Junos brewing in its lab, Gilliland coyly said to “stay tuned.”
“Yes, we do have some other opportunities that we are very excited about,” said Gilliland, noting that they’re looking work with the biotech industry to develop the approaches. “And it doesn’t just have to do with immuno-oncology. It has to do with some other strategies around stem-cell transplantation, for example, and others. But, stay tuned, and we will keep you posted.”
Juno’s technologies have yet to make it to market, though the $1 billion investment by Celgene certainly will help speed up development. Even so, Gilliland noted that funding for organizations such as the Fred Hutch is a challenge given state and federal budget cuts. For example, Washington state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund is in jeopardy of seeing its budget slashed, and the National Institutes of Health is shrinking.
That comes even as the state of Oregon committed $200 million to the Oregon Health and Science University, helping the organization reach its $1 billion goal for cancer research funding.
Gilliland called that a “spectacular” achievement, and said he looks at the deal with “envy” given the state of Oregon’s involvement.
Gilliland also discussed the opportunity to tap the amazing amount of data being produced in drug research, using analytics and cloud-based systems to better track and analyze the data so that individual patients get the very best treatment. He said that type of “precision” medicine generates massive amounts of data.
“The soaring costs of oncology care are simply not sustainable, and one way we can help address that is when we give a medicine to a person that has cancer, we know it is going to work for them, and that we don’t give medicines that are not going to work for them. But the data that that generates is almost incomprehensible, and when you think about that, you think: where better in the world would you want to be than in a city and a state that has Amazon and Microsoft? We are right in their backyard, or as I like to say, they are in our backyard. But we have an opportunity to more effectively integrate with them to understand how to manage big data, and how do we move up into the cloud. How do we understand how to integrate in order to leverage the abilities we have in our economy to bring both biotech and tech together in a way that is synergistic.”