Hutchinson Cancer Research prides itself in its new treatments harnessing the patient’s own immune system in the fight against the deadly disease.
Gilliland is thrilled of having the opportunity to work with immunotherapeutic approaches, he said in an interview on Wednesday. According to him, such a unique approach provides the opportunity of curing cancer instead of treating it.
“The Hutch has been at the leading edge of that for the entirety of my career.”
he said in the interview.
Hutch has a longstanding tradition when it comes to being the harbingers of therapeutic novelty. In 1977, E. Donnall Thomas, Hutch researcher, was the first to ever perform a bone marrow transplant for the treatment of leukemia. Although researchers initially believed that bone marrow transplants worked by giving eradicating cancer-causing cells, they soon realized that the immune cells that had been transplanted along with the marrow were the ones hunting down and killing tumor cells.
Gilliland’s career as an oncologist was marked, he said in the interview, by a New Hampshire acute myeloid leukemia patient. Although doctors had eradicated the cancer, her bone marrow was destroyed in the process and the woman developed fungal pneumonia. She died the same night. At that time, Gilliland says, no one knew how to identify one single AML causing gene. It was only after years of research that drugs appeared specifically targeting leukemia.
20 years of Gilliland’s career were spent at Harvard, before joining Merck, when he decided that he wanted to actively help patients instead of only getting papers published. After four years with Merck, Gilliland accepted that drug development was much harder than he had anticipated. He did, however, become fascinated with a drug called PD-1 inhibitor. It blocks receptors that prevent white blood cells from attacking malignant cells.
Gilliland hopes to achieve the perfect balance between immunotherapeutic treatments and gene-target medicines.
“These immunotherapeutic treatments, they raise the hackles on the back of my neck. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
he said, also noting his certainty that a cure is just around the corner for those illnesses based on such an approach.