At Swedish, Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, leads a transformational moment in cancer research and care

December 2, 2021 Swedish Cancer Team

Executive Medical Director Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, at far left, with pillar leads from the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute

Executive Medical Director Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, at far left, with pillar leads from the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute.

[8 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • A gift from the late Paul G. Allen has supported groundbreaking new research through a center at the Swedish Cancer Institute.

  • New initiatives include a focus on immuno-oncology, molecular and genomic evaluation of cancer and early detection and prevention, as well as an emphasis on serving a diverse patient population.

  • Dr. Grethlein, executive medical director of the institute, is also prioritizing the acceleration of next-generation research that will change how we understand, treat and prevent cancer.   

On a recent autumn morning, as the sun broke through low clouds in the Seattle sky, the future changed for thousands of patients with cancer and their families. On that day, Swedish announced a $20 million gift from the estate of the late philanthropist, Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The gift, made shortly after Mr. Allen’s death in 2018, supports the formation of the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute. The center will be home to next-generation research that will change the way we understand, treat and, ultimately, prevent cancer.

Sara Jo Grethlein, M.D., MBA, the executive medical director of the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI), will help lead this visionary initiative and the work of the physician researchers launching a multi-pronged approach to cancer care driven by data collection and new, deeper understanding of genetics and our immune system. 

“This incredible gift is the seed for realizing many dreams about what is possible in cancer care and in the lives of patients with cancer and their families,” says Dr. Grethlein.

We sat down with Dr. Grethlein shortly after Mr. Allen’s gift was announced to hear about the center’s transformative work, its home at Swedish and her first year leading the Swedish Cancer Institute.     

Courtesy Allen Institute/Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group

What do you want patients with cancer and their families to understand about the research happening at the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute?

I’d like patients and their families to know that our work is multi-dimensional and that we are focused on three areas, which we call our pillars. Our work in these areas will benefit millions of patients with cancer and their families around the world, far into the future.

The Center for Immuno-oncology , led by Kelly Paulson, M.D., Ph.D., will design and launch innovative trials in immuno-oncology, which is getting a patient’s immune system to fight their cancer for them. Immuno-oncology has been a dramatic game-changing field in cancer care for the last several years. We’re going to push it even further. That’s going to have the quickest and most impact on patients.

The Initiative for Cancer Prevention and Early Detection, led by Chuck Drescher, M.D., will have the greatest significance for patients and their families as we start looking at high-risk individuals and ways we can prevent and detect cancer early, especially in people who are high risk. Many cancers run in families, so this research may be impactful for those patients’ families in helping us do a better job in preventing and predicting cancer where there is high risk.

And the Initiative for Molecular and Genomic Evaluation of Cancer, which will be led by Hank Kaplan, M.D., will help us identify patterns of tumor behavior. This might include figuring out which patients are at higher risk of recurrence or more likely to respond to a particular treatment, so we can better tailor treatment. Looking at the genomic profile of a malignancy can help us identify who is and who is not likely to benefit from chemotherapy, for example. Similar patterns of information may help prevent patients from getting chemotherapy when they might not benefit or make sure that they don’t miss out on it when they might.

The main ways we’re going to change the lives of patients with cancer and their families are through clinical trials and research that help discover new treatments and prevent patients’ families from being affected by the same disease. We’re also focused on doing a better job of meeting our goal of giving patients the right treatment at the right time along their cancer journey.

I’d like patients and their families to know that our work is multi-dimensional and that we are focused on three areas, which we call our pillars. Our work in these areas will benefit millions of patients with cancer and their families around the world, far into the future.

How does the mission and work of Swedish support innovation at the center?

The mission of the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute is to improve the experience of every patient with cancer by leading advances in understanding, treatment and prevention, and optimizing the environment for us to do clinical trials and translational research. We are also committed to offering the best care possible for everyone. When we start from the idea of improving the experience of every patient with cancer, that means that we have to be committed to reaching diverse communities and making extra efforts to reach those patients who might be left behind. Since our research determines the way we manage cancer in the future, it is important that we study the diverse population we treat. Without paying attention to this in our research initiatives, some of the communities we treat might be left behind with treatments that aren’t optimized for them. That means reaching out and partnering with organizations in the community to try to lower barriers to entry into screening and prevention programs and clinical trials. That is very complex work.

Mr. Allen’s bequest will allow us to focus on things we might not otherwise be able to do. We say our work will impact every patient with cancer, and that’s something that this tremendous gift will help us achieve. When we think about screening initiatives, for example, right now we do really well with some screening initiatives for some populations. We know that urban, Caucasian, and middle and higher socio-economic status patients benefit the most from our screening initiatives, but people outside that demographic probably have a higher need. So, some of the work that we’re going to do in enhancing our screening and early detection is going to be reaching out to communities that struggle with traditional methods and locations. That’s incredibly exciting.

Working to get better diversity in our clinical trials means improving care for every patient, because the outcomes will apply to every patient and not just the limited demographic that traditionally participates.

What comes next? What are your immediate priorities?  

We’re now in the process of hiring our staff. Critical pieces of the center are the two core entities: the CORE lab and the informatics core. Those serve all three of our pillars, so hiring the right lab manager is critical and finding the best informatics scientists to join us is critical, because those individuals will partner with us to help us move from idea to outcome.

We want to reflect Mr. Allen’s belief in the almost limitless power of ideas to make real changes in people’s lives. At the same time, we know we must be exceptionally good stewards of Mr. Allen’s generous gift. Before we expend a major amount of money on a project it must go through a rigorous review, including a review of its scientific validity. That means that it’s not just the team at Swedish, but we also get external scientific reviewers before approval of major projects. It’s challenging because it slows things down a little bit, but it’s important that we do things right and we are respectful of our benefactor, and we make sure we use this money in a way that is highly likely to get us important outcomes. We must balance expertise, pragmatism and patience because we want to make sure that the funds we expend are going to be used on projects that are scientifically valid and effective. That’s something that requires multiple perspectives before moving forward.

We’re excited because we’re close and we’re at the stage where we are recruiting the best people to do the work and getting these important projects greenlit. One of the primary things we want our community to understand is that the work we are doing prioritizes ideas, research and changing the lives of patients with cancer; this is not about constructing buildings.

Can you talk about the importance of philanthropy in supporting visionary initiatives? How does philanthropy make possible the innovation you've talked about?

After receiving Mr. Allen’s gift, and after much deliberation and planning, we wanted to honor Mr. Allen and his vision and brilliance by naming the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute after him. We believe it is only befitting that we invest this gift in programs that support ideas and advance understanding. Ultimately, this foundational gift is like the magnificent marble floor of a grand building. It sets the stage for an even bigger entity that does more research and opens more doors for every patient.

One of the primary things this generous bequest does is allow us to accelerate the pace of research. It allows us to take some prudent risks and to dare to fail as we pursue our lofty goals. Philanthropy allows us to push that envelope: we certainly must have a good scientific rationale that what we’re doing should work, but philanthropy allows us to try things that we don’t know for sure will work, and that is how we change the future, by taking those educated risks.

What has your leadership role at SCI been like?

It’s really been remarkable. I have been stunned in a positive way by the incredible caliber of the people and programs that I’m getting to partner with at Swedish and the depth of experience and compassion that is apparent, in every stratum and in every person I interact with.

For example, I’m so moved when I see the passion some of our schedulers exhibit in going out of their way to make sure things are right for patients and their families. Or our patient financial advocates, who are behind the scenes working with insurers to make sure that our patients can get the care that our physicians recommend. And our extraordinary nurses, who are so dedicated to our patients and their families. At every level, whenever I turn a corner, I’m met with consistent excellence. It’s really been extraordinary.

How you can help

Research at this scale requires a significant investment in technology, personnel and laboratory resources. Your philanthropic support will unlock the secrets of cancer’s evolution and how patients respond to treatments by building a team of experts in research and data collection. Learn more and give today at www.swedishfoundation.org/PaulGAllenResearchCenter.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about cancer diagnosis or treatment, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Bequest from the late Paul G. Allen will fund research that will change cancer care and treatment

Breast cancer: New research. New therapies. New hope. 

Lessons from an employee cancer survivor 

Cancer survivorship

Coping with cancer: Acceptance and commitment therapy

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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