When Dr. Oliver Press entered medical school in the 1970s, he was clear about one thing: He wasn’t going to treat cancer. Too depressing, he thought.
Little did he know that he would find cancer—especially blood cancers—a fascinating biomedical problem, and that he would develop pioneering treatments bringing hope and cures to thousands.
“That just shows how naïve I was,” said Press, now one of the world’s leading researchers of lymphoma, a cancer of immune cells called lymphocytes. "People still say that treating cancer must be depressing, but it’s not for me. I have patients that I treated 25 years ago and they’re still here and they’re cured. It’s exhilarating.”
The once-reluctant oncologist has been at the forefront of developing new therapies—particularly approaches that harness the immune system, known as immunotherapy—for blood cancers like leukemia, multiple myeloma, and especially lymphoma.
For more than 25 years, Press and his colleagues have worked to overcome a vexing problem in cancer treatment: Traditional external radiation doesn’t distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells, so the radiation wipes out everything in its path. Press’ groundbreaking use of radiolabeled antibodies—radioactive molecules that stick to malignant cells—has offered a highly effective way to spare normal cells while blasting the cancer with high doses of radiation. Combined with stem cell transplantation, this approach has produced some of the best lymphoma cure rates in the world and reduced harmful side effects for patients.
Press has also had unprecedented success in treating follicular lymphoma with radiolabeled antibodies, either alone or sequentially with chemotherapy, boosting the five-year survival rate for these patients from 64 percent to 87 percent.
In addition to radioimmunotherapy, Press has been investigating ways to modify a patient’s own T-cells to fight lymphoma. With support from private donors (he currently holds the Dr. Penny E. Petersen Memorial Chair for Lymphoma Research, endowed by James and Sherry Raisbeck) and the Lymphoma Research Foundation, Press and colleagues have genetically modified the T-cells to recognize a signature protein on the surface of tumor cells.
The tumor-targeting T-cells are infused back into patients to seek out and destroy the cancer.
He’s refining the approach to create more powerful and longer lasting T-cells to fully eradicate the cancer, representing a new treatment possibility for current and future follicular and mantle cell lymphoma patients. One day, this less toxic approach may replace transplantation as a front-line therapy.
Press, who is also a professor of medicine and an adjunct professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, has trained a cadre of researchers who have become full-fledged contributors at the Hutchinson Center, refining the use of various immunotherapies to treat various blood cancers.
And as testament to his leadership in the field, he was elected by his peers across the nation to serve as co-chairman of the National Cancer Institute’s Lymphoma Steering Committee, a group that establishes lymphoma research priorities for the United States.
In his lab, another of Press’ therapeutic approaches for leukemia and lymphoma shows great promise, with 100 percent cure rates so far in model organisms. Known as pretargeting, this multistep delivery method allows five times more radiation therapy to reach the cancer than with standard radiation, all while avoiding healthy tissue.
Press said the dual roles of lab research and patient care have complementary rewards.
“One absolutely propels the other. There are times when things are going really well in the lab and it’s very rewarding, but other times I hit brick walls in research,” he said. “Then I go to the clinic and know I’m making a tangible difference there. I see patients who were given our research treatments when standard treatment failed and they were out of options, and they’ve been in remission for 20-plus years. It’s so gratifying.”