You are helping us create a future where pediatric cancer
treatment is less toxic and far less harmful.
Published in Connection magazine, Fall 2016
Greta Oberhofer’s (at right with older sister Charlotte) leukemia is in remission thanks to an innovative T-cell therapy being studied at Seattle Children’s.
“We couldn’t believe how easy T-cell therapy was for Greta,” recalls her mother, Maggie Oberhofer. “After they gave her the cells, we walked around
Green Lake, visited friends and did normal family stuff. It was so much better than the bone marrow transplant, where she was in agony in the hospital
for three months.”
Greta Oberhofer survived a bone
marrow transplant for leukemia when
she was just eight months old – but
the side effects nearly killed her. Then,
six months later, her family’s worst fears
came to life.
“My husband put the doctor on
speaker phone – he told me Greta
relapsed and that her prognosis was
bad,” remembers her mother, Maggie
Oberhofer. “She had already suffered
so much with the chemotherapy and
transplant, and we didn’t want to put
her through that again. We didn’t know
what to do.”
The Oberhofers – who live in
Portland – were considering hospice
for Greta. Then they heard that Dr. Rebecca Gardner of Seattle Children’s
was testing a therapy that uses reprogrammed
immune cells to attack
certain kinds of leukemia.
“Dr. Gardner said not to give up
because her therapy was putting kids
like Greta in remission, and that the
side effects were often a lot easier to
tolerate,” Oberhofer says. “We suddenly
had a way forward.”
A few months later, the Oberhofers
watched Greta’s reprogrammed cells
drip into her body. Two weeks after
that, her cancer was in remission.
Greta, now 3, was one of the first
patients in a study that’s part of our
push to make immunotherapy the
biggest cancer treatment breakthrough
of our time. Of the 42 children with
acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
who have participated in the study
to date, approximately 93% achieved
“It’s astounding – standard therapies
weren’t working for these kids and they
faced a 10% to 20% chance of survival,”
Gardner says. “It shows how immunotherapy
research is moving us toward
a world where pediatric cancer is just a
bump in the road instead of a life-altering
Your gifts make it possible for us to manufacture
immunotherapies and pursue new cures for children
A game-changing therapy
The clinical research studies led by Dr. Rebecca Gardner could be part of the biggest breakthrough in cancer treatment of our time.
When Dr. Michael Jensen started
treating children with cancer in the
1990s, he came face-to-face with kids
who were cured of the disease but
saddled with side effects like learning
disabilities, hearing and eyesight
problems, and increased risk of diabetes,
heart disease and future cancers.
“Even the best therapies can take a
brutal toll,” Jensen says. “I knew there
had to be a better way.”
He joined other researchers on a
mission to reprogram T cells – white
blood cells that fight infections – to
find and kill cancer cells. He showed
that these modified cells could wipe
out cancer in the lab. In 2011, Jensen
came to Seattle Children’s to turn
immunotherapy into a real-world cure.
Your gifts enabled us to begin
clinical studies that place us among
a small handful of institutions at the
forefront of developing, testing and
refining immunotherapies for children.
The study that Greta participated in is
among the world’s first clinical studies
of T-cell therapy for ALL – and the only
one open to children under age 3.
Another step closer
The therapy starts by removing T cells
from a patient’s blood sample. Then
Gardner’s team inserts DNA that tells
the T cells to recognize CD19 – a
protein found on some ALL cells. The
re-engineered cells are infused back
into the patient, where they seek out
and destroy cancer cells.
Gardner’s study and similar research
at other institutions confirms that
immunotherapy is a safe and viable
way to treat cancer. But many hurdles
remain before the therapy can
substitute for today’s treatments.
“It’s easy to forget we’re still in the
early phases of understanding how
T-cell therapy works and making it
more effective,” Gardner says. “We
hope to be able to offer it to newly
diagnosed patients in about 10 years.”
Goal: prevent relapse
Dr. Andy Scharenberg is dedicated to working
with a patient’s immune system to address a wide
variety of diseases. One of his current projects is
working with Dr. David Rawlings on T-cell
therapies that could disarm type 1 diabetes.
After Jude Anderson’s leukemia relapsed
a second time, his family came from
Arizona to participate in Gardner’s ALL
study. The re-engineered T cells put Jude,
then 2, into remission for five months,
but he suffered a third relapse in April.
Jude isn’t alone. Seventeen of the
in Gardner’s study have
suffered a relapse.
Of those who relapse, about half
are like Jude: their reprogrammed
T cells don’t stay alive long enough
to permanently keep leukemia at bay.
Gardner’s colleague Dr. Colleen Annesley
recently launched a trial that uses
a vaccine to entice the T cells to
In the other half of patients who
relapse, the leukemia outsmarts the
therapy by coming back in a form
that no longer expresses CD19. This
lets the leukemia cells fly under the
T cells’ radar.
Next year, Gardner plans to start
a trial of T cells that are trained to
recognize both CD19 and another
protein called CD22. This might help
the T cells stand guard and attack the
leukemia if it returns, particularly if
the leukemia no longer expresses CD19.
“It breaks my heart when I hear that
a patient relapses,” Gardner says, “and
it makes me even more motivated to
pinpoint why the leukemia comes back
and find ways to head it off.”
As Gardner’s research moves forward,
her colleagues are pursuing immunotherapies
for other types of childhood
Dr. Julie Park is leading one of the
world’s first clinical studies of T-cell
therapy for neuroblastoma, which is
the deadliest childhood cancer. And
Dr. Courtney Crane is devising ways to
help re-engineered T cells break through
brain tumors’ defenses.
Their research is part of Seattle
Children’s larger effort to use immunotherapy
to improve treatment for many
childhood diseases. For instance, Drs.
David Rawlings and Andrew Scharenberg
are reprogramming T cells in ways that
could disarm type 1 diabetes.
“We’re only scratching the surface of
our potential to use the immune system
to cure children and help them lead
happier, healthier lives,” Rawlings says.
Your support makes it possible for us to conduct clinical trials,
manufacture immunotherapies and pursue new cures. You can
advance our research by visiting Strong Against Cancer.
Fundraising goes national
Support from donors, like Patricia Siewart and Robert Evans, was crucial to enabling Dr. Michael
Jensen (right) to develop T-cell therapy. “We’re like a biotech startup racing to get its product to
market,” says Jensen, “except our goal isn’t to make money – it’s to cure children.”
In 2014, we launched Strong Against Cancer – a national initiative to
raise $100 million to accelerate our
immunotherapy researchers’ progress.
“Our goal is to develop therapies
that cure children throughout the
world,” says Doug Picha, president
of Seattle Children’s Hospital and
Research Foundation. “To do that,
we needed to expand our fundraising
horizons and connect with people
who have been touched by cancer,
no matter where they’re from.”
Strong Against Cancer has raised
more than $30 million so far, from
individuals in all 50 states, from
corporate sponsors and from local
individuals like Robert Evans and
Evans and Siewert see a parallel
between childhood cancer and a health
scourge from an earlier time: polio.
As children, Evans and Siewert had
nightmares about getting polio and
being confined to an iron lung. When
Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that
eradicated the disease, they both
realized how research can transform
the medical landscape.
“We want to see Dr. Jensen and his
team do for cancer what Salk did for
polio,” Evans says.
Our immunotherapy research
wouldn’t be possible without donor
support because the National Institutes
of Health offers very little funding for
clinical trials or many other aspects of
our work, such as manufacturing the
“The fact that children are in
remission today is a direct result of
our donors’ generosity – and Strong
Against Cancer is helping us carry the
momentum forward,” Jensen says.
“This field is moving so fast that, if we can buy patients even
a few more months, there’s a chance that there will be a
new therapy available to help them.”
New hope for Jude
Though T-cell therapy initially put Jude Anderson in remission, he relapsed after five months because
the reprogrammed T cells didn’t stay alive long enough to permanently keep the disease at bay.
He and his mom Barbara Anderson came back to Seattle Children’s for a second round of T cells.
T-cell therapy hasn’t been the magic
bullet that Jude’s family hoped for but
they’re grateful it bought him a few
more months of being cancer-free.
When he was in remission, they went
to Disneyland twice and enjoyed
Christmas at home.
After chemotherapy slowed Jude’s
latest relapse, he came back to Seattle
for another dose of modified T cells.
In case Gardner’s treatment doesn’t
work, Jude and his family also made
a quick trip to Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia, where physicians
harvested his cells for a study of a
different T-cell therapy.
“This field is moving so fast that, if
we can buy patients even a few more
months, there’s a chance that there
will be a new therapy available to help
them,” Gardner says.
Jude’s mother, Barbara Anderson,
hopes one of the therapies will put
Jude back in remission and help him
get strong enough to endure a second
bone marrow transplant, which could
prevent relapses once and for all.
“I always think about the first
families who let their children get
chemotherapy for leukemia,” Anderson
says. “I’m so grateful for their bravery – it helped save so many kids. Hopefully
in 10 years, families will look back at
Jude the same way.”