A new cancer research center is in the works at Swedish Health Services, following a $20 million gift from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that the hospital said Tuesday will be “transformational” for the future of cancer care and treatment.
The gift, made shortly after Allen’s death in 2018, will support the establishment of the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute and target ways to better understand how to detect cancer early, treat it and, ultimately, prevent it from occurring in the first place, the hospital announced Tuesday.
“When we look at this gift, we want to make sure that we are impactful across the spectrum of cancer,” Dr. Sara Jo Grethlein, SCI’s executive medical director, said in an interview. “He didn’t make a gift for one specific type of cancer or one specific component of cancer, but more to allow us to advance the mission of cancer research, which is incredible.”
Allen’s investment will specifically focus on building up cancer prevention and early detection, immuno-oncology therapies — using the body’s immune system to fight the disease — and a better understanding of cancer genomics, Grethlein said. She said she anticipates the center will be up and running by early 2022.
“For Mr. Allen to put his trust in us for his care means a lot to our organization” Swedish CEO R. Guy Hudson said in a Tuesday statement, “and now with this gift, we’ll be able to serve and honor his legacy by helping not only those in the Puget Sound region but all cancer patients and communities everywhere.”
The cancer institute plans on creating two new physical spaces to chip away at these goals, including a wet lab on Swedish’s campus, which will allow researchers to handle tissues and blood specimens from patients, a resource SCI doesn’t currently have.
The hospital will also develop a core informatics lab to help process and analyze patient data, a resource that could help oncologists tailor treatments specifically to the genetic and molecular makeup of each patient and their tumor, rather than treating patients based on their more general types of cancer, Grethlein said.
“When we look at cancer medicine, even before we get to cancer research, the amount of data for each patient is enormous,” she said. “There is great value in scientifically studying the data.”
The two new labs will help Swedish tackle research initiatives on broader scale, she said. While the hospital is waiting for outside approval on specific screening initiatives, Grethlein said one example could be getting out into the community to encourage more patients — particularly those outside the Puget Sound region — to participate in clinical trials. Another possible new initiative could focus on developing “proven and well-established” guidelines for screening high-risk populations for anal cancer, which don’t yet exist, she said.
“Paul was grateful for the care he received at Swedish over the years,” said Jody Allen, Allen’s sister and trustee of the Paul G. Allen estate, in a Tuesday statement. “His gift reflects his lifelong belief that to make transformational change to benefit others, you must invest in science and the researchers pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking to solve complex problems.”
Allen died at 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, two weeks after he had announced he was restarting treatment for the cancer he had fought off in 2009. After stepping down from Microsoft — which Allen founded in 1975 with childhood friend Bill Gates — he became a prominent leader of business and philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest, eventually going on to buy the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, and establish the Experience Music Project, now known as the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP.
Swedish also has plans to use Allen’s funds to put together a new immuno-oncology team, comprising of hospital experts from both the cellular and noncellular immunotherapy fields — in addition to hiring other scientists to join the group.
Cellular immunotherapies generally take blood cells and train them to fight blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, whereas noncellular immunotherapies are mostly used for solid tumors, like lung or bladder cancer.
“Potentially by having those two fields working together, we might identify that some of the cellular therapies work better for solid tumors — not currently being done routinely — (or) that the noncellular therapies have a role to play in the blood cancers — not currently being done very much,” Grethlein said. “By putting those experts together on a team … we hope to push cancer care forward.”
Allen’s gift is an “opportunity to dream big,” she added.
“We do cancer research and we have many, many clinical trials currently open, but this is a whole new ballgame,” Grethlein said.
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