THE MAGIC MICROSCOPIC particles that might change the world — and in the process, permanently burnish Seattle’s spot on the big, ascent-of-man scientific map — are, at this very moment, being carted about on a medical campus one short traffic jam away from the shores of Lake Union. Their mode of transport: a thermo-molded plastic lunch cooler, of the sort one might nab at Walmart to carry a baloney sandwich and some freshly cured herring out for a day of salmon fishing on Puget Sound.
The little coolers are ubiquitous at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which four decades ago pioneered a groundbreaking treatment for blood cancers — the bone-marrow transplant, now an older science that still saves lives, but not without harrowing side effects.
What has changed in cancer research since then? Almost everything. But the research growing from those transplants is blossoming today into what could be, at last, actual cures for common cancers that have long stood as irrevocable death sentences for millions of people.
Some of the new treatments — collectively, “immunotherapies” that unleash the body’s own immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells — have shown mind-blowing results in early testing on blood cancers.In one ongoing trial, patients with a leukemia that had resisted previously known treatments achieved a remission rate of 93 percent — a result that even seasoned researchers at The Hutch called “astounding,” particularly given the treatment’s relative lack of the destructive side effects of traditional radiation and chemotherapy. The weapon of choice — re-engineered human “CAR-T” cells — did its work more efficiently and completely than even its creators had dared dream.
During that trial, the oncologist for one terminally ill patient phoned a veteran Fred Hutchinson researcher, Dr. Stanley Riddell, less than a week after the administration of a single dose of these super cells, confessing astonishment. The stricken patient, plagued by pounds of malignant tumors in the lymph nodes of his neck, said he felt the deadly tumors “melting away like ice cubes.” The treatments are still being tweaked, but early results have left usually reserved researchers borderline giddy.