Health/Life Sciences

‘The way forward for most cancers care’: Seattle establishments join analysis, clinics underneath Fred Hutch title

UW Medicine CEO Paul Ramsey (left) and Tom Lynch, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. (GeekWire Photo / Charlotte Schubert)

Cancer research in the Seattle region will become more integrated with area clinics and hospitals under a new effort announced Friday.

“It’s the future of cancer care and cancer research,” said University of Washington Medicine CEO Paul Ramsey of the change.

Ramsey spoke with GeekWire during an interview before a press event Friday introducing a new “unified” adult cancer research and care center, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. The center is the result of a realigned relationship between the UW Medicine, Seattle Children’s, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which will operate under the new name, along with expanded responsibilities.

The new center will provide oversight of adult clinical cancer care at UW Medicine and a structure to more closely coordinate research and care.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was founded almost 50 years ago and grew to five scientific research divisions. And though “research” is no longer part of the institution’s name, the operation of those divisions will continue, and science is still central. The new center has the same president and director, Tom Lynch, and is also officially sticking with the well-known nickname, “Fred Hutch.”

The new center aims to accelerate scientific discoveries into cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cures, said UW and Fred Hutch leaders at Friday’s event. In an interview, Ramsey and Lynch provided more background on the endeavor, which was more than two years in the making.

“By working together, we can cover the full spectrum of integration of the research, clinical and educational training, and the full spectrum of compassionate clinical care, from prevention of cancer to cure of cancer,” said Ramsey.

“We’re bringing a cancer program into a world class health system at UW Medicine,” added Lynch.

The announcement reworks institutional connections made as part of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), formed in 1998 by Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s. Over the next year, all eight alliance sites will be rebranded as Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Key changes are Fred Hutch’s new oversight UW Medicine’s cancer care, and the clinical integration of Fred Hutch’s cancer research program into the UW medical system. Seattle Children’s will “continue operating independently,” of the new Fred Hutch but partner closely with it, according to the center’s website.

A lot of scientific interaction already happens across institutions in Seattle, said Lynch, but the new structure will add extra fuel to discovery. And that will not only benefit patients, it may buoy the regional startup ecosystem.

“Commercializing technology and bringing it to patients is an enormous priority for the Hutch. Always has been, always will,” said Lynch. Fred Hutch is a steady source of spinouts such as cell therapy companies Juno Therapeutics, Lyell Immunopharma, and more recently Affini-T Therapeutics. By tightening institutional interactions, the new arrangement has the potential to foster more spinout activity, said Lynch.

There’s room for increased synergy involving UW researchers and centers of innovation, said Ramsey. He notes that the Brotman Baty Institute was founded by Fred Hutch, UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s. The UW’s Institute for Protein Design has spawned companies like A-Alpha Bio, Icosavax, and Cyrus Biotechnology, and its research has implications for treating cancer. “We’re always doing joint business and strategic planning,” said Ramsey. “We’re going to accelerate the use of those collaborations.”

But first to benefit from the changes will be patients, said Ramsey and Lynch. Underlying the change is decades of research and technology development that is cracking open the molecular understanding of tumors.

As the new arrangement progresses, patients and clinicians will have more access to laboratory findings that can catalog and characterize their tumors, to clinical trials, and to therapies more matched to their cancer. Integration of patient data also means that information about patient outcomes can be more easily fed back to researchers, so they can understand the effects of various treatment strategies and study them, said Lynch.

“We are in the middle of an enormous data science revolution. And none of this would make a difference if we didn’t have the data science capabilities we have in Seattle,” added Lynch. “This is very much a Seattle story as well, because of that ability to bring in a link to some of the best data science in the world.”

“This is very much a Seattle story.”

Molecular information from each patient, such as which genes are active in their tumors, typically generates petabytes of data, said Lynch. And the institutions are building capacity to crunch that data and present it in a format usable to clinicians.

Cancer centers across the world have moved closer to this model, and the arrangement accelerates that process in the Seattle area. “It’s a national story, but it’s a Seattle story,” said Lynch.

In Seattle, data assessment is getting a big boost from a recently completed endeavor to integrate the SCCA and UW Medicine electronic healthcare record systems. The project cost about $190 million and converted 70 separate systems into one, said Ramsey. The new unified system will enable quick feedback between the clinic and laboratory, and also has the ability to exchange records with a separate system at Seattle Children’s.

The agreement will also better connect UW Medicine clinics statewide to the Fred Hutch system, expanding the pool of patients who can readily enroll in clinical trials. Ramsey and Lynch also foresee greater consolidation of clinical trial teams in the future.

“We intend to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all the people the state of Washington, including people who have not historically been included in cancer research,” said Lynch. The new organization is “taking a real focused healthcare equity lens,” added Ramsey.

The larger region outside the state also stands to benefit. UW Medicine is connected to a five-state area through a medical training organization with research ties comprising Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI). In the future, Ramsey sees that “becoming even more of a community-based research network.“

As part of the agreement, the new Fred Hutch and Seattle Children’s will be investing more in children’s cancer, said Lynch. Seattle Children’s will be the central site for pediatric cancer care, with bone marrow transplantation moving into a new facility being built at Children’s.

With the restructure, Fred Hutch has brought on a new, 13-member board of directors. Nine are from the Seattle community, and four are Fred Hutch and UW Medicine leaders: Lynch, Ramsey, Nancy Davidson, director of Fred Hutch’s clinical division, and Lisa Brandenburg, president of UW Medicine Hospitals and Clinics. Kathy Surace-Smith, senior VP and general counsel at Seattle biotech company NanoString Technologies, is board chair; she was previously chair of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s board of trustees.

UW Medicine and Fred Hutch will operate as separately governed and licensed hospitals, and during the transition there will be no changes to patient teams and care will continue uninterrupted.

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