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Research Groups Team Up to Fight Cancer with 'Ninja Warrior T-Cells'

Gerry Broome
AP Photo
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Seattle researchers and investors are making a massive bet on a new cancer-fighting technology.

The new startup, called Juno Therapeutics, is working on ways to take T-cells out of a patient’s body and genetically engineer them to attack his or her specific tumor.

Co-founder and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President Larry Corey says the idea is to equip the good guys to target cancer cells’ weaknesses.

“We have to take them from wimpy T-cells into ninja warrior T-cells,” said Corey.

Juno pools brainpower from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Research Institute and New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The company says it has raised $120 million in initial financing—a huge sum for a startup using technology built from scratch. One major backer is Seattle-based Arch Venture Partners. Managing Director Bob Nelson says he’s lost money on other immunotherapy gambits, but Juno’s early results convinced him to make the biggest investment in the firm’s history.

“When you start looking at CT scans of people that have stage-four cancer and then it goes away in two weeks, you get excited,” Nelson said.

Much more testing is needed on those promising early results, however.

And there are more reasons to be skeptical. Other much-hyped biotech ventures, such as Seattle’s Dendreon, have delivered what many consider disappointing results. And cancer cells are unpredictable and notoriously clever at morphing to evade new treatments.

But if it succeeds, Juno’s technology could change the outlook for people in the late stages of many different cancers.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.