Stephanie Florence is the image of optimism. She is a blonde, bubbly, professional photographer from Lewiston, Idaho, who has a knack for finding something positive just about anywhere.
“I love to do landscapes or still life, anything that is beautiful. Anything I find beautiful I want to take a picture of,” Florence said, sitting in the blue glow of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s visitor center.
So when she was diagnosed with an “incurable” type of lymphoma ten years ago, she wasn’t going down without a fight. Florence is still alive today thanks to a cutting-edge technique called immunotherapy, which uses a patient’s immune cells to fight their cancer.
Yesterday, she cut the ribbon at the opening of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic, a first-of-it’s kind facility that is the result of collaboration between Fred Hutch, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch spin-off Juno Therapeutics, and philanthropists Mike and Jackie Bezos and their family, whose donations have helped fuel immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch for years.
The clinic’s medical director, Dr. David Maloney, told GeekWire in an interview last week that the clinic could be a game changer for immunotherapy research and will speed up the development of these treatments.
For the moment, immunotherapy trials are focusing on helping patients who have few other treatment options, like Florence.
“Just from the get-go, I didn’t want to accept ‘incurable,'” Florence said about her diagnosis. “I actually started researching immediately. I was getting a bone marrow biopsy, and at the same time asking my oncologist — who was performing it — ‘hey, what about this?’ He was very patient.”
But despite extensive chemotherapy, and later a stem cell transplant, Florence’s cancer came back again and again, with more aggressive qualities.
Throughout her treatment, Florence had been following the progress of immunotherapy, a group of cutting-edge techniques that use a patients’ immune system to fight their cancer. She petitioned to enter a clinical trial at Fred Hutch, and in June of 2015 she was infused with CAR T cells, genetically modified versions of her own immune T cells that had been designed to attack her cancer.
“Eighteen months later, I’m cancer free,” Florence said. She isn’t completely out of the woods yet, and there is always the chance her cancer may come back, but given her incredibly poor health going into the trial Florence said this outcome is incredible.
“It’s like winning the lottery every day,” she said. “When you think about having time with people, or having time with family, what that’s worth? To have the gift of eighteen months of life given to me… there’s no words, honestly.”
Immunotherapy clinical trials at Fred Hutch and other research centers around the world have led to remarkable stories of recovery and remission, even among the most ill patients. But there are still many questions to be answered about the treatments and their side effects.
That is the role of the Bezos Family clinic, which has been serving a small number of patients since October. After its official opening, it will more than double the number of clinical trials Fred Hutch is able to conduct each year. Twelve trials are already planned for next year, and the clinic can service 90 patients at a time.
“This is a place where miracles happen, but they’re not just miracles. They’re well thought out decisions on how to take a person’s disease and make them disease free,” Jackie Bezos said at the opening event.
The most famous Bezos family member, Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos, also put in an appearance to support the clinic’s opening. But he did not speak to the crowd.
Dr. Richard Klausner — a longtime player in the development of cancer treatments and one of Juno’s co-founders — said at the opening that the clinic will be instrumental to advancing our understanding of these treatments.
“While this is a very exciting field, there’s all sorts of enthusiasm about it and there’s great early hints of clinical signals, its going to be really tough science,” Klausner said.
One of Juno’s own clinical trials of a CAR T cell treatment was suspended last month after two patient deaths, bringing the total deaths in the trial to five. They were thought to be caused by a side effect to the immunotherapy — many side effects of CAR T cell treatments are not particularly well understood at the moment.
“For us, when we started Juno, the goal of this company was — of course to make products and bring them to patients — but the long-term goal was to unravel the rules. And we’re just beginning to do that,” Klausner said.
“I really believe that with this type of approach and this kind of partnership the rules of cellular immunotherapy will be figured out.”