Our History: It started with a lunch.
On February 3, 2008, Harlan Robins, Christopher Carlson, and Edus Warren, all Ph.D.s working and teaching at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, gathered for lunch where the topic quickly turned to the new sequencing machine recently purchased by the Research Center.
“It was one of those magical lunches,” explained Dr. Carlson, “where a computational biologist, immunologist, and molecular biologist had a collective ‘aha!’ moment.”
That “aha!” moment produced “the single biggest step forward in understanding the complexities of the immune system that’s occurred in the last 5-10 years,” said Dr. Warren, which has been echoed by many in the research community.
Analyze T cells and B cells at a depth and detail never before possible
The result is a technology that allows scientists and researchers around the world to analyze T cells and B cells at a depth and detail never before possible, likely leading to treatments and cures for diseases currently not imaginable.
Previously, scientists had been able to catalog the exact makeup of approximately only 30,000 unique T cell receptors (TCRs) out of more than 100 million. TCRs are the molecules found on the surface of T cells that are responsible for recognizing antigens and a clue to stopping deadly disorders such as diabetes and leukemia.
Using the new technology, scientists can now identify 10-15 million unique TCRs in one individual, giving them unprecedented ability to understand at a cellular and molecular level what’s going on in a complex immune response – that is, how the body responds to and fights off antigens.
“This is something that a lot of people have worked on for a long while, and Harlan and Chris have cracked it,” explained Jay Shendure, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington.
Specifically, the team discovered a breakthrough method of measuring a person’s adaptive immunity through massive parallel sequencing of T cell receptors.
By being able to sequence huge numbers of TCRs, researchers can learn their specific makeup for comparison and study, thus providing a path to further understand, diagnose, and identify treatments for a variety of cancer, autoimmune disorders, and infectious diseases.
Dr. Carlson put it best, “This is the first time in my career where something I’m working on will actually change someone’s health in my lifetime.”
Becoming a business
To make the technology available to scientific community at a price point where researchers could incorporate it into their studies, the team enlisted the support of Chad Robins, Harlan’s brother, who had an impressive business background to go along with his Wharton MBA.
“The more I learned, the more I understood that the future implications of the technology are almost unimaginable,” marveled Chad.
The team founded Adaptive TCR Corporation, now called Adaptive Biotechnologies Corporation, with Chad as the CEO and President, and quickly rolled out immunoSEQ, the first commercial product based on the discovery.
Within months, scientists began shipping DNA and cDNA samples to Adaptive’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington, where the samples would undergo an ultra-high-throughput sequence analysis, producing vast amount of data. The researchers could then easily interprete and manipulate the data from their own computers using a suite of cloud-based software tools called the immunoSEQ Analyzer.
Professor Stephen Devereux, at King’s College Hospital in south London, described his experience, “immunoSEQ has has become an invaluable resource in our research. The tools are very accessible and it’s been relatively easy to ask questions of the data and see results.”
Over the next 12 months, Adaptive plans to continue expanding its immunoSEQ offering while developing general diagnostics to use as clinical measurements, with an initial focus in oncology.
“The possibilities are just enormous and profound,” concluded Chad.