Maryn Sage remembers the words she heard on the day she learned that her 16-year-old son, Jedd Feliciano, was cancer-free.
“His marrow’s clean,” the doctor told her over the phone, ending a devastating fight with leukemia that proved resistant to the standard treatment. Feliciano’s cure had come in the form of a clinical trial for CAR T immunotherapy at Seattle Children’s. Two years after his diagnosis, Feliciano was able to return to high school this fall as a junior.
A new 540,000 square-foot building in downtown Seattle hopes to expand the kinds of clinical trials that helped Feliciano and to serve children with cancer around the world. Seattle Children’s today opened the ambitiously-named Building Cure, which will act as a research hub to explore treatments for childhood cancer and other diseases.
It’s a symbol of how far immunotherapy — which reprograms a patient’s immune cells to fight their cancer — has come in the past decade, when Seattle Children’s made its first investment in the field. “We had no idea at that time that we would accelerate immunotherapy products the way we have and impact kids the way we have,” said Dr. Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
On the 12th floor of the building is the “cure factory,” where scientists will create cell-based therapies for up to 1,000 children each year. Not all of those children will be in the Seattle region. Remote patients may have blood removed at local treatment centers and shipped to Seattle Children’s, where the cells will be reprogrammed to fight cancer and sent back to the patients.
Already, immunotherapy treatments manufactured at Seattle Children’s are available to patients at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Seattle Children’s is also establishing relationships with hospitals in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in the U.S.
Clinical trials are the bridge between research efforts and FDA-approved treatments. “This is where the transition happens from learning how to cure a childhood disease in a mouse or petri dish and beginning the very hard work of learning how to cure that disease in children,” said Dr. Michael Jensen, director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s.
“Being a part of a clinical trial is super important,” said Sage. “Researchers get the information so that they can eradicate this.”
Seattle Children’s, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and UW Medicine collectively form the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a cancer treatment and research center. The organizations are largely responsible for the region’s expertise in immunotherapy that helped to give rise to companies like Juno Therapeutics, which started as a collaboration between Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Much of the building is currently empty and will be filled out as new programs are created. Seattle Children’s is also pursuing treatments for a range of childhood diseases like diabetes, epilepsy, malaria, cancer, sickle cell, ADHD and rare disorders like mitochondrial diseases.
“Science moves at a rapid pace. Technology moves at a rapid pace,” said Hendricks. “So to have floors ready for the next technology, for the next area of research investment, is really important to us.” The 10 floors of new biomedical laboratory space nearly double Seattle Children’s research campus to more than 1.1 million square feet.
A lab space on the ground floor will be used to teach students from local schools how to perform experiments related to the research done at the center, such as isolating white cells from blood samples and running DNA tests.
Jensen imagines a future in which an immunotherapy treatment could be created within a week of a cancer diagnosis. Patients would receive their engineered T cells, get a fever and chills for a few days, and go on to be cancer-free. “We’re a long way from that. But that’s how far we’re going to try to get this to,” Jensen said.