Immunotherapy is simple in theory, but endlessly complex in practice.
This type of treatment uses the body’s immune system — a system designed to find and attack microscopic invaders — to kill cancer cells. But despite some incredible successes, there are many more questions to address about this therapy.
Why do some people respond to immunotherapy, while others do not? How can it be applied to solid tumors, which are more difficult to treat than the blood cancers it has been successful on so far? And perhaps most importantly, how can we prevent the potentially deadly side effects of immunotherapy treatments?
Answering these questions is the goal of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic, a new facility opening Monday at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The clinic is named for the family of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who have donated about $30 million to immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch.
“The whole field of cellular immunotherapy is a new one,” said Dr. David Maloney, medical director of the new clinic and Fred Hutch’s medical director of Cellular Immunotherapy. “So far the biggest leads have been from this treatment called CAR T cells, and that’s where we modify T cells and use them to attack a target that’s on the tumor cell.”
And as new as immunotherapy is, a dedicated immunotherapy clinic is even more novel — this facility is the first and only one in the world.
The clinic is designed specifically to fuel the research of immunotherapy treatments, and will likely be a boon for Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics, a startup that spun out of Fred Hutch and licenses immunotherapy techniques produced in several Fred Hutch labs.
Early trials of CAR T cell therapy, such as Juno’s lymphoma drug JCAR017, have shown incredible potential — even sending patients with advanced, terminal cancers into remission. But they have also revealed a number of issues, including potentially deadly side effects. Juno’s most advanced clinical trial, studying the leukemia drug JCAR015, was suspended last month after two patients died from side effects, following three deaths in June.
Maloney said the new clinic will allow Fred Hutch to greatly expand its ability to run clinical trials, speeding up the process of developing these treatments and finding solutions to persistent issues.
The clinic is on the sixth floor of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance building on the Fred Hutch campus, allowing researchers to take new developments from the lab to clinical trials much more quickly than currently possible, Maloney said. Data collected at the clinic will then return to Fred Hutch’s labs, to inform the next steps in developing new treatments.
“That’s the beauty of this clinic, is that it is really an enabling of bench-to-bedside research and it can speed up the delivery of this new kind of cancer therapies to patients with the disease,” he said.
There’s even a lab in the clinic itself, which “can help process the samples, help us look for the T cells, and things like that. Then those cells can be sent to the research labs, so it really makes the research easier for the researchers and the patients,” Maloney said.
The new clinic was also designed with patients in mind — the 9,222-square foot-space has 15 rooms where patients come in to receive their treatment and have other procedures done.
“Typically, patients may have to go to many places in the buildings to get their blood drawn, then to go someplace for an infusion, then someplace else for a bone marrow biopsy,” Maloney said. But in the new clinic, most of the things patients need can be done in their dedicated room, he said.
The clinic will more than double Fred Hutch’s clinical capacity. It has been operational since October, but is officially opening Monday. There are already twelve new trials anticipated for 2017, up from 5 this year. That includes four groundbreaking trials on solid tumors, which have proved difficult to treat with immunotherapy.
Maloney speaks more about the clinic and its mission in the video from Fred Hutch below.