Cures Start Here. The key word in the tagline of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is Start.
It’s also typically the hardest part of scientific research, especially when it comes to funding.
The financial path from a researcher’s bold idea to reporting final results — and then to reaching patients — is rarely straight or simple.
Research must have demonstrated proof of its viability to be eligible for government funding from entities such as the National Institutes of Health. Fred Hutch researchers receive more NIH funding than any other freestanding cancer center, but they can only secure these grants for work that has already shown promising results.
Fred Hutch’s track record of federal funding reflects the caliber of the organization’s research faculty and quality of its science. That funding supports a full range of research in cancer, HIV and related diseases, from basic science that seeks foundational understanding of human biology and disease to clinical research that pioneers cures and therapies from lab to bedside.
“If you look at the overall contributions that the Hutch scientists have made over the last several decades in basic science, in clinical science, in public health science, the return on investment is just enormous,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Fred Hutch’s executive vice president and deputy director.
Those contributions grow from that difficult starting point: an audacious idea or theory that needs to be explored before federal agencies or foundations provide more significant investment.
That starting point requires flexible funding, particularly unrestricted support, which gives researchers the time and resources they need to chase big, bold, unproven ideas — ideas that can lead to the greatest leaps but carry a higher risk of failure or disappointment.
Fred Hutch’s philanthropic support comes from individuals and foundations drawn to the mission for many reasons. Often, it’s because they have been affected by cancer, HIV or a related disease. Or they may want to be part of something bigger — to play a part in addressing one of humanity’s toughest challenges.
Tens of thousands of people give to the organization throughout the year online, at events, through peer-to-peer fundraising activities such as Obliteride and Climb to Fight Cancer, through wills or trusts, in memory of loved ones and in many other ways. Ninety-five percent of those donations are less than $1,000 and, when combined, add up to millions of dollars of funding. Unrestricted support allows this funding to go to areas of greatest need, while targeted gifts are directed to particular researchers or disease areas. And unlike government or foundation grants that require an application and approval process, unrestricted funds can be put to work immediately.
The high-risk, high-reward research that these funds make possible can push the boundaries of human knowledge. And that new knowledge is developed into cures and therapies through additional government grants or industry partnerships.
“It’s actually the risky projects which have the bigger chance of completely changing paradigms,” said Fred Hutch evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik. “There are multiple labs at the Hutch where they’re changing textbook definitions about what we know about biology, and that’s bound to have a profound impact on how we understand life and how we practice medicine.”
Increasingly, cutting-edge research is happening through new technologies that analyze and report on what is happening with DNA or RNA molecules inside millions of healthy cells as well as mutated cells. New computing power is taking those millions of data points to illuminate patterns that may explain what is causing disease — and spark lifesaving new approaches.
As with any new technology, this area is evolving quickly — often more quickly than federal funding cycles. Philanthropic support allows Fred Hutch researchers to stay at the leading edge of this research and to drive its evolution through resources and partnerships across the organization.
“The combination of the rich understanding of great researchers like we have here at the Hutch around the biological sciences and the chemical sciences are more and more being combined with incredible technologists that understand the computer and the data sciences,” said Matt McIlwain, chair of Fred Hutch’s board of trustees.
Innovative research, paired with philanthropic funds, advances new ideas and positions them for much larger federal or foundation grants — making each of the thousands of tax-deductible donations show a huge return on investment.
And those donations also help save lives.
“If you’re looking at risk-reward, there’s no greater reward than providing and prolonging human life and ending suffering,” said Fred Hutch board member Mark Fleischauer, whose family has been impacted by cancer. “We need philanthropy to give [the Hutch] the freedom to experiment, to look around the corners at other ways of approaching this disease.”