The parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos have given the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center a $10 million donation to further research in immunotherapy.

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Efforts to harness the power of the immune system to cure cancer got a boost today with a $10 million donation to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

The donation from Jackie and Mike Bezos will help fund the Hutchinson Center’s Program in Immunotherapy and support work in an increasingly promising area of research. As the first large private gift to support immunotherapy, the Bezos pledge is intended to challenge other donors to help the center raise $28.5 million for the program.

The hope for immunotherapy is to stimulate a person’s own cells and antibodies to selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact, holding the potential to defeat cancer without toxic side effects.

The donation will enable the center to recruit and retain top researchers, support development of new immunological drugs and strengthen clinical trials to make new therapies more widely available to patients, said Director Lee Hartwell, of the Hutchinson Center in Seattle.

“We have been seeking significant private support to solidify the Hutchinson Center’s position as the world leader in immunotherapy research,” he said. “The Bezos family has stepped up to that challenge.”

The center aims to advance and broaden the field of immunotherapy, building on its success in bone-marrow transplantation, an early example of utilizing the immune system to fight cancer that has boosted survival rates in leukemia patients from nearly zero to 85 percent in some cases.

Last year, Dr. Cassian Yee led a research team at the center that successfully utilized a patient’s cloned T cells to put advanced melanoma tumors into long-term remission, according to the Hutchinson center.

The Bezoses said they are optimistic that their investment will help change the face of cancer treatment.

“Our commitment is an educated bet on the next forefront in medical science and those who we feel are best positioned to capitalize on it,” Jackie Bezos said. “The first target — and it’s a big one — is cancer. But the potential for using immunotherapy to treat other diseases, including those of the autoimmune system, is tremendous.”

The gift is the family’s largest donation for biomedical research, but the couple gave the center $500,000 for cancer research in 2007, and their foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, has also supported educational efforts of the Hutch School, a program for pediatric patients and children of adult patients.

The Bezos Family Foundation had assets of $30.2 million in 2008, including $15 million from Amazon.com stock. Jeff Bezos and his siblings are directors of the Mercer Island-based foundation, which was established by their parents.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com