Tom Lynch moves to restructure Fred Hutch as academia, industry continue to push cell therapy into solid tumors
By the time former Bristol Myers Squibb CSO Tom Lynch stepped in to run the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center last year, both the potential and limits of the institute’s preclinical research had become clear.
The institute’s researchers, including famed virologist Larry Corey, had helped make CAR-T therapies a reality, contributing basic science and co-founding Juno Therapeutics, the cell therapy startup Celgene bought out for $9 billion. But while cell therapies have now proven an effective — even sometimes curative — therapy across multiple blood cancers, the approach has been frustratingly difficult to apply to solid tumors.
Lynch is trying to change that. In one of his first major moves as director — he spent most of his first months dealing with the pandemic — the longtime cancer researcher announced plans to restructure Fred Hutch’s relationship with two other major Seattle institutions, Seattle Children’s and UW Medicine, and form the Fred Hutch Cancer Center.
The move is designed to accelerate clinical research. It will do so, in part, by more directly connecting patients with the new work Hutch’s translational researchers have done on solid tumors while expanding researchers’ abilities to progress in the field. Previously, Lynch said, while many blood cancer patients were referred to Fred Hutch, most patients with solid tumors had been treated at UW.
Now, they will be under one roof, where patients might get better access to new discoveries.
“We have that [depth] covered in virology, we have that covered in cell therapies,” Lynch told Endpoints News. “We don’t have that same depth in solid tumors.”
The expansion from one of the nation’s top cancer institutes is notable, reflecting the broader direction industry and academia have taken over the last couple years. There are numerous hurdles to getting cell therapies for solid tumors. Most notably, it can be difficult to get T cells to penetrate the immune-suppressing defenses many solid tumors surround themselves with. It’s also hard to find targets on solid tumors that won’t also send the T cells after healthy tissues.
And that’s just the known risks. Earlier this year, one of the most watched solid tumor cell therapy startups, Tmunity Therapeutics, scrapped their lead prostate cancer program after two patients died from unexpected neurotoxicity.
Yet the profound benefits blood cancer patients have seen from cell therapies have sent researchers searching for creative solutions, and venture capitalists and pharma companies have poured billions of dollars into new efforts.
Lynch said the new structure, which would replace a prior collaboration called the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, would “increase the scope” of what researchers such as Hans-Peter Kiem, a prominent gene therapy researcher, could study. Individual discoveries could be translated as well. He cited a recent study from computational biologist Robert Bradley showing that RNA therapies could help T cells — and thus cell therapies — enter solid tumors.
“Not in the next six months — the way we did with Covid vaccines — but over the next five to 10 years, I think you’re going to see a significant acceleration in cancer science in patients with solid tumors,” Lynch said.