NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will use the $10 million pledged recently by the family of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to jumpstart a new program devoted to expanding the practice of immunotherapy beyond blood borne cancers, to breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers among other forms of the disease.
The center's new Program in Immunotherapy has set a five-year goal of advancing the use of the body's immune system's infection fighting T cells against cancer, to bring survival rates for people with solid tumor cancers at least close to, if not above, the 85-percent range experienced by people with leukemia due to bone-marrow transplants. A team of Hutchison Center researchers led by E. Donnall Thomas won the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for pioneering bone-marrow transplantation against blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.
"We plan four recruitments over the next several years. Two of these would be basic laboratory investigators, and two would be more toward the clinical investigation side of things," Fred Appelbaum, senior vice president and director of the center's Clinical Research Division, told GenomeWeb Daily News on Tuesday.
Appelbaum discussed the Hutchinson Center's announcement of the $10 million donation from Bezos' parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos, on behalf of Jeff and the rest of the immediate family.
The donation is not the first money raised toward the projected $28.5 million cost of the new immunotherapy program. To date, Appelbaum said, the center has also raised "in the range of about $2.5 million" toward the program.
"Our commitment to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center 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 in the Hutchinson Center's Nov. 23 announcement of the gift. "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, are tremendous."
The Bezos family has started working to raise the funds. On the center's web site, would-be donors are promised a $2 match for every dollar they donate between Dec. 5 and Dec. 31. The match shrinks to dollar-for-dollar starting Jan. 1, 2010, and extending throughout the three-year challenge period, which ends Dec. 31, 2012.
The center does not expect to spend all of the $10 million donation during the three-year matching period. "We imagine this is a five-year investment into the project. The majority of the funds would be expended in five years or so," Appelbaum said.
The pledge is not the first time Jackie and Mike Bezos have donated money to the Hutchinson Center, according to Kristen Woodward, a spokeswoman for the research institute.
In 2007 they gave $500,000 for cancer research as an individual gift, not through their family foundation. The Bezos Family Foundation has in recent years provided about $8,500 in support of Hutch School, an educational program for pediatric patients and children of adult patients.
"We anticipate an enthusiastic response to the [$10 million] Bezos family challenge from our major donors during the upcoming three-year challenge period," Woodward said.
Appelbaum said the donation will allow the Hutchinson Center to carry out further research on developing biologic agents. One potential group of agents is patients' own T cells that would be isolated, then programmed to kill tumors by expansion in vitro, or by manipulation through addition of a chimeric receptor.
A second group of potential agents include antibodies that can recognize tumor cells, and carry immunoconjugates, radioisotopes that act locally against those cells. The group includes a new antibody that acts against a tumor, followed by a second reagent that acts on the antibody. "We also have the potential for developing antibodies that would rid the body of certain substances that block the normal immune response to the tumor," Appelbaum said.
Some of these groups are being used in the clinic, and some are being prepared for future clinical use, he added.
"We already know that we can take patients who have certain malignancies like melanoma, and we can isolate T cells from their blood which are specific for the melanoma, we can expand them in vitro, and we can give them back to that patient. We believe we should be able to do the same sort of thing in patients with sarcoma," Appelbaum said.
"I would be very disappointed if we don’t have active protocols in the clinic within a year or a year and a half to treat sarcoma, possibly colon cancer, and within the five-year timeframe of this award, I expect we will have active protocols in the clinic for ovarian cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer as well," he added.
Immunotherapy against blood borne cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma developed earlier, he said, because liquid tumors were more readily accessible by drawing blood, available in larger numbers than solid tumors, more sensitive to immunologic attack, and because bone marrow transplantation proved successful.
The Hutch also plans to explore the design and use of antibodies as drugs, study new agents that can activate and augment immune responses, and overcome natural limitations in those responses, as well as search for molecular abnormalities in cancer cells that can serve as new targets for therapy.
"We are still in the process of target discovery. But even if we find no new targets, we believe we have plenty of bona fide targets available to us without having to identify more," Appelbaum said. "We have plenty to keep our plates filled for the next half-decade. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t always keep your eyes open and look for additional targets."
The center believes new T cell-derived immunotherapeutic agents like IL-21 and IL-17 can be given with T cells to survive longer, fight cancer cells better, or get rid of cells that interfere with the T cells, he said.
The Bezos donation is among the five largest gifts ever received by the Hutch, which raised $14.9 million in net contribution including major gifts during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's just over half of the $27.6 million raised in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, according to the center's 2009 Annual Report.
Net contributions accounted for 4 percent of the center's $354.8 million in operating revenues during the 2009 fiscal year, compared with 7 percent of FY 2008 revenues of $382.3 million. The year-to-year revenue drop reflected in part the contribution decline, as well as a $13 million drop in investment income.