The statistics are sobering. Every three minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or another form of blood cancer. And every nine minutes, someone dies of blood cancer, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Too often, the outcome from treatment (whether from transplantation or chemotherapy) is not a cure but a severely compromised blood and immune system, leaving the patient too often fatally vulnerable to infection.
One of Seattle’s most venerable institutions, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) remains a beacon of hope for these patients. Fred Hutch has long been in the forefront of discovering effective treatments for blood cancers, particularly bone marrow transplantation and related innovations. In 1990, Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas won the Nobel Prize for his life-saving bone marrow transplantation work.
Today, the therapeutic potency of healthy stem cells in combating blood cancers is not limited to cells harvested from patients or compatible donors. Through the work of Fred Hutch’s Drs. Irwin Bernstein and Colleen Delaney, stem cells from donated umbilical cords can be effectively instructed to multiply, rapidly differentiating into mature cells that assist patients in preventing life-threatening infections. Once infused into patients, these super cells can help clear a pathway back to health.
Historically, the challenge for the Hutch, a nonprofit, has been to take its scientific discoveries and develop them into commercially viable products or technologies accessible to patients in clinical settings. Adding industry partners and creating spinoff companies can help speed that process.
“We’re sitting on top of these transformative treatments. There are people out there with cancer who are dying as we sit here talking, and we can’t get the drugs out fast enough,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch’s president and director. “So, we can take this into our hands and say, ‘We’re bringing intellectual property that has value that can help us monetize the efforts to try to bring these things forward more rapidly.’”
Today, Fred Hutch has an increased focus on developing partnerships with the private sector and developing its discoveries into lifesaving real world treatments and technologies. Such partnerships create a win-win — benefiting patients by making new treatments available faster and Fred Hutch by capturing the commercial value of its discoveries.
Nowhere is this new entrepreneurial approach more promising than in Fred Hutch’s most recent spinoff, Nohla Therapeutics, which launched in December 2015. Nohla is a stem cell therapy company focused on developing off-the-shelf, on-demand universal donor therapies that require no tissue-type matching. Its first product, a new cord blood stem cell product developed by Delaney, utilizes a platform produced after two decades worth of research conducted by Fred Hutch teams led by Bernstein and Delaney.
Nohla would not exist were it not for the vision and persistence of Delaney. When she was a fellow working in Bernstein’s lab, she told Bernstein she wanted to translate the lab’s work on cord blood expansion to the public.
“It was kind of ridiculous for anybody at that stage of the game to propose,” said Bernstein, laughing. “It’s early; the amount of regulatory stuff, just the amount of work it required would take almost an entire lab to do it.” Delaney was undeterred. “She did it singlehandedly, basically,” he said.
No fewer than seven Hutch-owned licenses cover this product and its key attribute of not requiring HLA [tissue-type] matching, which means it can be given to “anyone at any time,” Delaney said.
With Nohla’s launch, Delaney will continue to oversee her laboratory at Fred Hutch and run the center’s Cord Blood Transplant Program. Located in South Lake Union, and surrounded by entrepreneurial enterprises of various kinds, Fred Hutch, Delaney and her colleagues seem particularly well positioned to nurture future partners and help bring their breakthroughs in cancer research to the marketplace.
BRUCE W. LEAVERTON is a Shareholder at Lane Powell, where he focuses his practice on business finance, mergers and acquisitions, licensing transactions and restructuring matters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.223.7389.