New pediatric cancer research center opens in Seattle.



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Posted on July 9, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 12 at 11:19 AM

Ben Towne was born in 2005. His parents say he was a healthy, happy, funny little boy. But by the time he was a toddler, Ben was dying.

"He was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in August of 2007," said Carin Towne, Ben's mother.

She recalled her feelings the day the family received the terrible news.

"I just remember holding Ben really tightly thinking that this can't be happening to us. He can't have cancer. I mean, he's only two," she recalled.

Ben endured 15 months of treatments from chemotherapy and radiation, to surgery, to a stem cell transplant, all unsuccessful in the end. The Townes hope research at a new facility, the Jensen Lab at  Center for Childhood Cancer Research, can lead to a entirely new way of treating kids in the future.

Renowned pediatric cancer researcher Dr. Michael Jensen will direct the Jensen Lab at the Center. He gave our crew a tour as construction wrapped up in June.

"Twenty-thousand-square-feet of research laboratory space," said Dr. Jensen, showing a wing of the facility.

Here researchers will re-program immune system T-cells to battle cancer. It's an approach he helped develop over fourteen years. And it's already remarkably successful in mice. Research is only one of the activities to take place at the new center.

"We'll be actually making therapies in this manufacturing facility," said Dr. Jensen.

Picture a tube of a child's blood arriving at the center. The immune cells will be customized to attack that child's cancer.

"And then what will come out of this facility will be a bag with that child's name on it, with that child's own reprogrammed immune cells, that will go back to Seattle Children's Hospital, and be re-infused as part of a new therapy to battle that child's cancer," Dr. Jensen explained.

He believes the experimental therapy will someday bypass the awful trade offs that are part of today's treatments. If Ben Towne's cancer had been cured, he could still have faced hearing loss, organ damage, infertility, and future cancer.

"If we're successful, then the worst side effects of being cured of cancer would be feeling like you have a cold for a couple of days," said Dr. Jensen.

Ben Towne's parents have created a foundation in Ben's name, with the goal of speeding the research. They share a commitment with Dr. Jensen.

"That Seattle will be the place that eventually will make its mark on the curing of  this disease," said Jeff Towne, Ben's father.

Their efforts may soon help usher in an incredible advance in treating pediatric cancer. Dr. Jensen said he is optimistic that clinical trials of the new immune therapy will start within two years.