In early December 2020, after weeks of careful preparation and procedures, a San Diego cancer patient was treated with a wholly novel cell therapy – one created just for this patient, using their own immune cells. The treatment of the first human patient with this cutting-edge approach to cancer is a dream fulfilled for Fernanda Whitworth, president and co-founder of Immunotherapy Foundation – the San Diego non-profit that initiated and funded this trial, in addition to the essential research and lab space that brought it to life.

“Five years ago, my late husband Ralph and I had a vision to bring cutting-edge medicine to our home in San Diego. We wanted to bring together the best doctors and researchers to investigate the best treatments for cancer patients – and with the treatment of this first patient, that dream is being realized.”

Cancer had sadly touched Fernanda’s life through the deaths of loved ones, but her determination to realize cures was sparked by the diagnosis, and then recurrence, of her late husband Ralph Whitworth’s HPV+ head and neck cancer. After learning about the promise of cancer immunotherapy, Ralph and Fernanda helped to create and invest in a partnership between the La Jolla Institute for Immunology and UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, creating a roadmap from the lab bench to the patient bedside for the most promising immunology research to reach and benefit cancer patients in clinical trials. The hope of these trials is to ultimately be approved for widespread access to cancer patients, and prove critical insights to the field of cancer immunotherapy along the way. And though the road to even the first phase of clinical trials is incredibly challenging – especially with something as locally unprecedented as personalized cellular immunotherapy – IF’s resolve to reach its goal has never wavered.

With this critical milestone met, IF’s leadership is actively charting the course to helping more ‘first patients’. “We are acutely aware that the majority of early research does not make it to patients – just over 3% of oncology treatments are likely to receive approval. And the cost of reaching approval continues to climb – the average median cost to bring a new drug to market is $985 million,” Christina Jordan, IF’s executive director shared with GB Magazine. “IF has played a critical role in funding the basic science and investing in the infrastructure needed to run sophisticated clinical trials locally. Our goal is to continue these philanthropic investments, so promising early therapies can reach more ‘Patient Ones’.”

As IF looks to the future, Fernanda is mindful of the past support that brought IF to this point. “Many of our donors have been with us since we began this long and incredible journey to the treatment of patient one, and we have been blessed by the support of new friends and donors along the way. None of our progress against cancer would have been possible without their support and belief in us – our donors mean the world to me, and remind me what amazing things are possible through the power of philanthropy.”

To join in IF’s mission, please visit www.joinif.org.

Sources for data points:
Trial approval: https://academic.oup.com/biostatistics/article/20/2/273/4817524
Cost to market: https://www.biospace.com/article/median-cost-of-bringing-a-new-drug-to-market-985-million/