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The work must go on: the legacy of a bone marrow transplant pioneer

October 22, 2012

By Ignacio Lobos, Hutchinson Center External Communications Editor

It’s a Monday, and the workweek begins on a sad note here at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Our colleague Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the father of bone marrow transplantation, died this weekend. He was 92.

I never got a chance to meet Thomas, but over the past several years I have met many of the researchers, nurses, doctors and staff who worked with him when leukemia and other blood cancers appeared to have no answers.

Thomas is a giant in the medical field, but when I hear colleagues talk about him, they don’t first mention his Nobel Prize. Instead, they focus on his qualities—the kinds of things that helped shape Fred Hutch culture.

He was a quiet man but stubborn man, and yet that stubbornness was narrow and well focused. He believed that bone marrow transplantation could work against an unrelenting killer—when many others said it never would—and he surrounded himself with likeminded researchers, clinicians and nurses as he sought to make it happen.

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, father of bone marrow transplantation.

Thomas was generous with praise—a team player who understood that science at its best comes through collaboration. When he received the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation, Thomas was quite explicit in praising his colleagues by name.

“It is always difficult to identify the many threads that make up the fabric of a life’s work,” he wrote on his autobiography at the Nobel website. “I know that my philosophy and ideas have been heavily influenced by more than 20 years of daily interaction with a small group of colleagues, all of whom are now distinguished scientists in their own right.”

I have heard from my colleagues that Thomas’ pursuit for a cure was not easy, with plenty of obstacles along the way. But Thomas had been at it since the 1950s, an entire life, and entire career. His wife, Dottie, was his partner not just at home but also at work. She was his lab technician, research partner, grant administrator, editor. Home life, work life. Sometimes it was hard to know where the line was drawn.

So, it’s easy to see why Thomas wouldn’t give up.

Today, his pioneering treatment has become routine in hospital rooms across the world, and survival rates have pretty much moved from nearly zero to more than 90 percent for several blood cancers. Transplantation is about to reach a major mark: 1-million transplants around the world, with about 60,000 performed each year.

“Don quite literally wrote the book on marrow transplantation,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, director of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, and a friend and colleague. “Don was a hero. He was, by far, the most influential person in my career, and I know that many others would say the same thing.”

The sadness that many of Thomas’ colleagues feel today is tempered by his legacy. His audacity to attack a problem that others thought was a dead-end will live on at Fred Hutch’s Seattle campus.

Thomas’ contributions have sparked entire new fields of inquiry, including promising treatments stemming from immunotherapy research. Most recently, his colleagues have put late-stage melanoma into remission by using a person’s own immune cells to attack the cancer. Another colleague soon will begin a transplantation clinical trial to treat Crohn’s disease.

Fred Hutch researchers continue to perfect bone marrow and stem cell transplantation by making it safer and increasing survival rates. Some of this research is making it possible to offer transplantation to nearly every patient in need—an incredible accomplishment from not being able to offer it to anyone just four decades ago.

The Hutch’s mission is simple, forged by Thomas’ lifework and medical contributions: “the elimination of cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death.”

This pursuit, Thomas’ pursuit, is illustrated by former patients.

“I clearly recall you making rounds and knowing that I gambled my life with the right man,” a former patient wrote in his remembrance book. “A transplant for chronic myeloid leukemia in 1984 was indeed a gamble. My recent celebration of the 28th anniversary of my transplant is now tempered by your death. What a wonderful life you lived, Doctor, and how thankful I am our paths crossed. I was 24 at transplant, 52 today and thanks to you I too have a shot at making 92.”

Thomas didn’t want his patients to gamble on a cure. Nor do his colleagues. And that’s why the work goes on at Fred Hutch.

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