Seattle researchers have lived through the ups and downs of cancer immunotherapy, and now they are seizing a growing leadership position in the field.
Martin “Mac” Cheever, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, has been awarded a five-year, $14 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a new Cancer Immunotherapy Trials Network. The national network, based at the Hutch, aims to coordinate as many as 25 centers around the country to run clinical trials of the most promising new cancer immunotherapy treatments in development. Along with Cheever, Nora Disis and Kim Margolin are co-lead investigators, according to a statement today from the International Society for Biological Therapy of Cancer.
The grant is another big step forward for the Hutch’s effort to develop treatments that boost the immune system to fight cancer. Back in November, the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos pledged $10 million to support the center’s efforts. The field has suffered many high-profile failures in the past, but has been re-energized in the last couple of years, particularly since Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) proved in a trial of 512 men that its immune-booster could help men with terminal prostate cancer live longer, and with mild side effects of fever and chills that lasted just one or two days. Dendreon made history in April when it won the first FDA approval of a treatment that actively stimulates the immune system to fight tumors.
Immunotherapies are thought to hold promise as an alternative to traditional treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Part of the reason is that because if the immune system can be “taught” to recognize a cancer cell as a foreign invader like a virus, then it ought to be able to seek out and destroy residual tumor cells that aren’t wiped out by other treatments. The immune therapies also typically have milder side effects than conventional therapies.
Cheever didn’t develop the Dendreon drug, but he’s been one of the leaders in the field of immunotherapy for a long time, and is familiar with the time and money it takes to move a promising therapy from the laboratory into clinical trials. Before he joined the Hutch and UW in 2005, he was one of the leading scientists at Seattle-based Corixa, which worked on immunotherapies.
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