We are poised to make more progress in fighting cancer in the next few years than we have in the last 50.
ONE of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made was to a young father whose wife was dying from complications of leukemia. She wasn’t going to live through the night; I told him he needed to come to the hospital to say goodbye. I was in the room when, one by one, her children crawled into bed with her for a last hug.
I had done all I could as her doctor. But it wasn’t enough.
Decades since that moment, the primary tools for treating cancer are still barbaric: chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. It’s not good enough. We have to do better for our patients.
Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the national “cancer moonshot” initiative, knows this, too. He’s uniting some of the brightest scientific minds to accelerate cancer cures. On Monday, he visited Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to hear about what we’re doing in pursuit of cures.
There is no time to waste. Just this year, 600,000 people in the U.S. will die of cancer. The ripples of each death, the shocks of pain felt by all those who loved that person who died, make the true toll even more profound.
Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, whom I met years ago, also knew that we must do better for patients. Against the odds, he pioneered bone-marrow transplantation at Fred Hutch as a cure for leukemia. Today, 1 million transplants have been performed worldwide.
But even that is not enough. We can do better. And we are.
For the first time in my career, due to the promise of immunotherapy — a treatment building on Dr. Thomas’ work harnessing the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer — I can see a tsunami of new cures for many cancers ahead.
Some of the most dramatic responses are in patients with certain advanced blood cancers who receive an immunotherapy called adoptive T-cell therapy. This approach uses T cells from the patient’s blood, reprogrammed specifically to target and eliminate their tumors. Patients, many with no other treatment options, describe tumors “melting away.” Some who had been given only weeks to live are still doing well 18 months later.
Hutch researchers have made landmark discoveries to advance this therapy, including identifying appropriate targets on tumor cells and determining which T cells to use and how best to engineer them so they can kill cancer — in some cases with just a single dose and with side effects that can be no worse than a mild case of the flu.
We are now developing T-cell therapies for melanoma and other skin cancers, sarcomas, and lung, kidney, breast, ovarian, pancreatic, colorectal, prostate, head and neck cancers, among others.
Right now, this work is only being done in the lab and in clinical trials. Once proven, these potentially curative therapies need to be available to everyone. We have the science and we know what to do. The only things holding us back are resources. With increased investment in biomedical research, we’ll get there.
We are poised to make more progress in the next few years than we have in the last 50. Fred Hutch, where the roots of modern immunotherapy began with Dr. Thomas’ work, is leading the revolution.
At Fred Hutch’s campus, I sometimes meet former transplant patients who have returned to say thank you and, often, show their children and grandchildren the place that saved their lives.
Recently, other patients have returned — those treated with immunotherapy. A few months ago, I met a young man whose life was saved through an earlier form of immunotherapy. He’s married now with two young children, a full career and a rich life. Unlike the patient I cared for at the start of my career, this parent will see his children grow up.