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New center to advance cancer cell therapy

Cancer cell therapy, once considered to be in the experimental realm, is rapidly becoming an accepted form of treatment that could vastly change the outlook for patients. Just last week, a federal Food and Drug Administration panel unanimously recommended approval of the first cancer cell therapy drug, which is expected to reach the market sometime this fall.

This first treatment is designed to combat an aggressive form of leukemia that occurs in children and young adults. It is a form of cancer immunotherapy in which the patients’ own immune cells are modified to lock on and kill malignant cells.

Crystal Mackall, MD, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford, is one of the pioneers in the field of cancer cell therapy, which she used with remarkable success in children while working at the National Cancer Institute.

"I think it has the potential to be highly impactful. That’s why I’m committing myself to it," Mackall said. "If we can optimize the functioning of these cells, they have the potential to effectively kill an established cancer and to remain functional for years after one infusion. That’s the goal — to have a product that will work on behalf of the patient. When optimized, they could remain active for months or years, preventing a recurrence of cancer. So for me, it’s potentially transformational."

Based on the promise of these new treatments, Stanford Medicine just launched a new Center for Cancer Cell Therapy with a $10 million gift from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeffrey Rothschild and his wife, Marieke, who are shown above with Mackall to the right and Beverly Mitchell, MD, director of the Stanford Cancer Institute, on the left. The gift will allow Stanford to move forward with a series of clinical trials in which physician-scientists will test variations on the treatment in different forms of cancer that affect both children and adults. Mackall will direct the new enterprise.

"This gift to establish the center will enable us to test new, targeted cell therapies, which have the potential to transform our fight against cancer," said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. "We are immensely grateful to Jeff and Marieke Rothschild for their commitment to our precision health vision and their foresight in supporting this exciting venture."

Jeffrey Rothschild says he was interested in supporting promising research and had been following reports on cancer immunotherapy. "There’s not been as much progress in cancer therapy as people had thought there might be 20 years ago. Here’s something which looks like a path that holds real promise, harnessing the immune system. That just seems very exciting," he said.

He and his wife say their main goal is to advance knowledge in the field. "We just hope to affect things in a positive way – have some impact," he said. "That’s all you can ever hope for."

The new center is expected to complement the work of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Stanford, a collaborative initiative involving six major medical centers. Mackall is the center's director at Stanford.

Previously: Final gift to Campaign for Stanford Medicine honors a family legacy of kindness, $50 million gift to propel advances in pediatric heart research and care and Exploring the promise and challenges of cancer immunotherapy
Photo by Rod Searcey

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