A gift of $20 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the Bezos family is a sort of “catalytic philanthropy,” said Dr. Larry Corey, the Hutch’s president and director, because it will allow cancer-immunotherapy research to proceed on multiple fronts at once.
The gift, announced Monday, is the largest single donation in the history of the research center, which pioneered the original immunotherapy in the 1960s and ’70s: bone-marrow transplants for leukemia.
The Bezos family’s contribution will extend researchers’ prowess on cancer immunotherapy for leukemia and lymphoma into the tougher area of solid tumors such as breast, lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers, Corey said.
The Bezos family has given before — a $10 million challenge gift in 2009 that allowed Hutch researchers to move lab successes using immune T cells to fight tumors in leukemias and lymphomas into early clinical trials, which are proceeding.
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That original gift laid the groundwork for other donations, and for a record-breaking startup financing of $120 million for Juno Therapeutics, a company formed in partnership with the Hutch, Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
The current gift, Corey said, represents a different kind of investment.
“It’s an investment in research, it’s an investment in the Hutch, an investment in Seattle. It’s an investment in a major way, but it’s not a commercial investment,” he said. “It’s an investment in science, and the importance and the role that research institutions play in developing new therapies, especially for cancer.
“That’s the way research is done,” Corey added. “It’s the research institutions that are the genesis of these ideas. We like to say ‘miracles start in the lab.’ ”
The Bezos family, including the Amazon founder’s parents, Mike and Jackie, has followed the work of Hutch scientists for the past few years and “are so encouraged by the spectacular results in patients with leukemia and lymphoma,”
Mike Bezos said in a statement for the family.
“The potential to now attack other cancers with this approach is too huge not to take this research to the next level,” he said.
Unlike the typical research grant, which compels researchers to focus on a single problem, philanthropic gifts allow more innovation, Corey said.
“The ability to take novel and inventive ideas and actually bring them to fruition has more and more required philanthropic dollars,” he said.
Then, such gifts and discoveries can be leveraged to create other, more targeted funding. “That’s why these gifts are so important,” Corey said.
CT scans of a patient with stage 4 lymphoma provided by the Hutch show that after treatment with engineered T cells, the tumors “melted away.”
“These are patients with literally pounds of tumor that are treated with less than a thimbleful of T cells, and their tumors melt away,” said Dr. Fred Applebaum, the Hutch’s deputy director. “They get complete remissions in a matter of days — not months, days.”
Corey said solid tumors, such as those in breast, lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers, have more “shield mechanisms” and may take a different kind of genetic engineering than that used for leukemia and lymphoma.
“The basic mechanisms for why the immune system is not recognizing and being transformed to treat those cancers is still only partially known,” he said.
Corey said the work to be funded by the $20 million gift will attempt to answer three basic questions:
• How do we define proteins or receptors on the outside of a cancer cell specific to each cancer that the immune system will see, and that will allow it to selectively kill just the cancer cells?
• How do we overcome the shields that cancer puts up to block the immune system?
• How do we engineer the immune T cells so they not only penetrate those shields and latch onto a cancer cell, but also effectively and quickly kill it?
“Those are three separate problems. You put teams together on those three problems, then you have a grand solution,” Corey said.
“We are believers that we will make immunotherapy an important component of cancer therapy in the next three to five years,” he said.
In the family’s statement, Jackie Bezos said:
“Seeing our initial investment translated into a therapy that is truly changing patients’ lives in a profound way is so motivating. It gives us great optimism for the future.
“Cancer got the jump on us, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.”
Carol M. Ostrom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom