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Fred Hutch makes a big step in the world of cancer treatment

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by: BY RACHEL BELLE, KIRO Radio, Ron and Don Show Reporter

There are a lot of really big, hardworking brains in Seattle. A lot of them work at Seattle’s Fred Hutch, and they’ve come up with something that the world has been waiting for — a very promising treatment for cancer.

Fred Hutch played a pivotal role in devloping bone marrow and stem cell transplant treatment, as well as the HPV vaccine, which completely prevents cervical cancer. Now they’ve likely made another big step.

While it is a promising therapy for treating some cancers, it won’t work for all cancers. Cancer is more complex than a single cure. But Gary Gilliard, president of Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, explains the concept of CAR T-cell therapy.

“The process involves taking a patient who has metastatic cancer,” Gilliland said. “Most cases these are patients who have no other hope for treatment, that have been through all the other treatments that we have to offer, and still have cancer.”

“We remove their immune cells, called T lymphocytes, and we genetically reprogram those cells to kill cancer cells,” he said. “We engineer in an explosive device, if you will, that can kill the cancer cell once it comes into contact. One of the wonderful things about this mechanism is that we only need to give a very small dosage of medically engineered T cells, that’s about the size of a grain of rice. But when you inject it into a human being, that will grow in their own body. We don’t have to give more than one dose.”

Fred Hutch and the cure for cancer

It’s genius: a treatment that allows the body to fight off cancer cells itself, using its own immune system without poisoning the body, like we do now. Although, a tiny bit of chemo is necessary.

“We do use a form of chemotherapy that lowers the lymphocyte count. That’s important for these new lymphocytes to be able to establish themselves. But it’s a very low dose of chemotherapy and it’s only one time that that’s given. It is not therapy that causes your hair to fall out or makes you nauseous.”

The treatment is still in clinical trial development, so it’s only been given to 200 people at Fred Hutch with pretty good results.

“It depends on the type of blood cancer. For acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is one of the most lethal forms of cancer, it’s greater than 90 percent. For non Hodgkin’s lymphomas, which are a different kind of blood cancer, the response rates are about 50 percent. So we’re working to understand what are called biomarkers of response. Who responds, why, who doesn’t respond and why and then we’re going to go after those patients who don’t respond with different types of therapies.”

The current goal is to get FDA registration.

“First trials that we started with were blood cancers. We’re seeing dramatic responses there that we think ultimately will lead to FDA registration of these as a therapeutic product. We’re extending that now to other types of tumors that are more common in the general population, like ovarian cancer. We have new trials that are starting in lung cancer.”

It’s amazing to think we’re getting closer and closer to fighting a disease everyone is affected by. A different immunotherapy treatment is already saving lives.

“One good example, President Jimmy Carter, who had metastatic melanoma in his brain and his liver, which should have been a death sentence at the age of 89. He got a medicine that activated his immune system and he’s now in continuous complete remission nearly two years later.”

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