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Dr. Mike Jensen, the executive director of CureWorks, at the Seattle Children’s Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research. Jensen is also the director of the Ben Towne Center. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

New cancer immunotherapies could revolutionize how we treat the disease, but for many children, those treatments are far out of reach.

A new collaboration between four children’s hospitals across North America is working to solve that. The project, called CureWorks, is spearheaded by Seattle Children’s Research Institute (SCRI) and will allow patients at the three other member hospitals to receive cutting-edge CAR T immunotherapy treatments through clinical trials being run by SCRI.

“What we hope to do through CureWorks is to, in a sense, democratize access to these very complex but potentially revolutionary cancer immunotherapies for children,” Dr. Mike Jensen,  CureWorks’ executive director, told GeekWire. Jensen is also the director of SCRI’s Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research.

While the program is starting with just four hospitals, Jensen said his vision is for it to become a network of twenty-odd hospitals around the world that share resources and treatments, extending the reach of these life-saving therapies and even potentially changing the game for cancer treatment in third world countries.

CAR T immunotherapy is a relatively new kind of treatment that genetically engineers a patient’s T cells, which normally fight viruses like the common cold, to find and attack cancer cells. Current CAR T trials at Seattle Children’s take aim at leukemia and a variety of solid tumors, particularly brain cancers.

Dr. Mike Jensen, the director of CureWorks and executive director of Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

So far, clinical trials of the therapies have shown some stunning results, even curing a significant number of patients with advanced and aggressive cancer. For the moment, the therapies are being studied as last-ditch efforts for patients who have no other options.

Families who happen to live close to research centers can often enroll their children in clinical trials like these to get the therapies, but for most families that is not an option.

“They can’t all come to Seattle and spent 4 months in Seattle on a clinical trial, and yet this therapy is too important to hoard it,” Jensen said. “CureWorks is this engine where patients can stay in their home hospitals, where their doctors know them, where their families live, and we will basically create these opportunities for [immunotherapies] to be made for them.”

In addition to Seattle Children’s, the CureWorks collaboration includes Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.; BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada; and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Patients who enroll in clinical trials through those hospitals will have T cells extracted at their home hospital and sent to SCRI manufacturing facilities in Seattle to be made into cancer-fighting CAR T cells.

“It’s a model that makes so much intuitive sense, but the journey to get to where we are today also provided many unexpected conversations with our peers,” Jensen said. “There’s a lot of trust involved with this. Why would you share something that could fill all your hospital beds and make your hospital more profitable?”

“The return on investment for this enterprise are more kids cured and kids cured with therapies that leave their bodies healthy and unharmed,” he said. “That’s a pretty good enterprise mission, I think.”

After being genetically re-engineered in SCRI’s facility, the patient’s cells will then be sent back to their member hospital, letting children around the country have access to potentially life-saving treatment.

Dr. Rebecca Gardner, a Seattle Children’s researcher whose immunotherapy clinical trial will now able to enlist children around the country through CureWorks. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

But the program isn’t just good for the patients: It’s also good for the science. Jensen pointed out that children’s hospitals often only have a few patients at a time with a particular kind of cancer, so getting enough data in a clinical trial can take much longer than it would in adult trials.

“What CureWorks can do is accelerate that through this collaboration and have many hospitals treating patients and generating that data,” he said.

One of the main drivers of this project is a new, 30,000 square foot manufacturing center in Building Cure, a project still under construction that will soon house SCRI in downtown Seattle. The new construction is part of the $1 billion It Starts With Yes campaign, which Seattle Children’s launched in September.

Jensen said the new facility is built differently than others of its kind. “It’s a functionally closed system and allows us to manufacture more like a Henry Ford assembly line, rather than how a Lamborghini gets built by everyone coming to the one chassis and putting something on,” he said.

Because most CAR T treatments have been developed for adults, whose immune systems differ from children’s, Seattle Children’s has put an emphasis on researching CAR T treatments specifically for kids and now has one of the largest pediatric immunotherapy research programs in the country.

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