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Bezos Family Pledges $10M to the “Hutch” for Next-Generation Cancer Therapies

The parents of Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos have pledged a $10 million donation to the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with an eye toward creating new therapies that trigger the immune system to seek out and kill cancer cells like a virus.

The offering from Jackie and Mike Bezos, one of the five largest gifts ever to the nonprofit research center, is being structured as a matching fund. The goal is to spark other private individuals to support the development of treatments that actively stimulate the immune system to fight cancer, known as immunotherapies. It’s the largest gift the Bezos family has made to support biomedical research.

“We’re very hopeful, yet mindful that undertakings of this nature are risky,” Jackie Bezos said in a statement. “There will, inevitably, be setbacks. This is why we are structuring the grant as a challenge, to help the Hutchinson Center secure, for the long term, a diverse group of supporters and to rally a community around science that has the potential to benefit us all.”

The idea of revving up the immune system to fight cancer has been around for almost a century, but even after three decades of intensified research, and more than $1 billion from biotech companies, there still isn’t an FDA- approved therapy that works this way. But Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) reached a landmark earlier this year when it was the first to show, in a major clinical trial of 500 patients, that such an immune boosting-therapy could help prostate cancer patients live a median of four months longer than they otherwise would on a placebo, with minimal side effects. And at earlier stages of research, scientists at the National Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Hutch say they have made major strides in understanding how to provoke potent, long-lasting, and versatile immune responses that could change the fundamental reality of cancer treatment—which is still built on a bedrock of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Fred Appelbaum

Fred Appelbaum

The Hutch has a long history of expertise in immunology for cancer, dating back to E. Donnall Thomas’s pioneering work on bone marrow transplants as an effective way to treat leukemia and other blood malignancies. But it was research from the past couple of years, from the labs of four different Hutch scientists, that convinced the center that it was the right time to push forward with a more far-reaching immunotherapy research and development program now, says Fred Appelbaum, the senior vice president and director of the Hutch’s clinical research division.

Based on the recent progress, Hutch president Lee Hartwell and Appelbaum “became convinced that now is the time to press on the gas pedal,” Appelbaum says.

Before diving too deep into the science, I tried to gather some of the backstory. Appelbaum was pretty tight-lipped about the Bezos family other than to say, like most donors, they were introduced to the Hutch’s work by a “friend of the Center.” Like all private donations, it’s important because it will help the center recruit at least four new faculty, and will give them the leeway to test unproven ideas in the lab, and generate a little bit of data that’s needed in order to rake in bigger bucks from the biggest provider of funds for the center—the National Institutes of Health. It will also allow … Next Page »

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