One of the largest biotech startups ever was announced Wednesday in Seattle, resting on the prowess of three major medical institutions, decades of research into harnessing the power of the human immune system, and a handful of successful trials in patients with certain forms of cancer.
The research partners include Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and pediatrics partner Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
The startup, called Juno Therapeutics, for the ancient Roman goddess, a woman warrior and divine protector of the community, begins with $120 million from investors.
So far, the few dozen patients who have undergone infusions of genetically engineered “killer” T cells under experimental research protocols have been those with very late-stage blood-borne cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and one form of leukemia.
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But the results have been so startling — dramatic reductions in the amount of cancer in some patients, and complete remission in others — that the partners recognized they needed capital to develop and extend the therapy, said Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of The Hutch and a Juno co-founder.
“We feel confident that harnessing the immune system to treat cancer will result in novel therapies that are potent and can lead to sustained cures, altering the course of cancer therapy in the next decade,” Corey said Wednesday in a news conference at The Hutch’s South Lake Union campus.
The shared vision includes not only clinical trials but a new “distribution system” to deliver these individualized therapies to patients, Corey noted. They believe the therapy could ultimately benefit patients with solid tumors, as well.
The new company will be led by Hans Bishop, former chief operating officer at Dendreon, which manufactured Provenge, the first cell-based immunotherapy for cancer.
In a statement, Juno co-founder Dr. Richard Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, said: “In more than 30 years of immunotherapy research, this is the most exciting data I’ve seen — a complete molecular response in clinical trial patients.”
Investors include the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., which invests returns from that state’s nonrenewable resources to benefit Alaskans, and ARCH Venture Partners.
Rests on early work
The therapy turns on some of the earliest work at The Hutch — the discovery of bone-marrow transplantation by E. Donnall Thomas, who won a Nobel Prize for the work.
That a transplanted immune system could cure leukemia, Corey said, became the basis for subsequent work to find the specialized cells that can kill tumor cells and to use genetic engineering and other tools to reprogram patients’ own T cells to kill their tumors.
Now, scientists at The Hutch can take T cells from a patient, use off-the-shelf techniques to modify them to find and kill tumor cells, grow those into more, and infuse the lot back into the patient, he said.
Potentially, said Dr. Michael Jensen, director of childhood cancer research at Seattle Children’s, the therapy could be used for patients in early-disease stages, helping them avoid surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, which carry their own risks.
Years ago, it seemed that harnessing the human immune system to fight cancer would be a slam dunk, said Dr. Phil Greenberg, who began working at the Hutch at age 30.
After all, such T cells, by nature, fight invaders. But like many efforts in medical research, that “slam dunk” seemed more like a “slow slog” for years. But as scientists developed the tools to manipulate and reprogram cells, work speeded up.
“Technology is changing in ways that we couldn’t imagine when we started our careers,” said Greenberg, head of The Hutch’s immunology program and one of Juno’s founding scientists.
So far, only about two dozen patients at the three institutions have been treated with this new therapy. And it’s too early to say whether the dramatic results will prove durable, Greenberg said. Patients might relapse, need a second infusion, or have unanticipated long-term effects.
But Greenberg is confident. “We think essentially this is really taking advantage of what the immune system was designed to do, which is to recognize cellular targets and kill (them), and protect the host.”
And at 67, he plans to see the effort through.
“This is such an exciting time for us,” he said. “That we’re going to do this now is like a dream.”
Carol M. Ostrom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom