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Fred Hutch doctor, E. Donnall Thomas, ‘father’ of bone marrow transplants, dies

Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are alive today because of the ground-breaking work of Seattle physician and researcher, E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., and his colleagues.

Thomas, who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine for his pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation to cure leukemias and other blood cancers, died Oct. 21. He was 92.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) announced the death.

His revolutionary work is among the greatest success stories in cancer treatment. According to the FHCRC, bone marrow transplantation and its sister therapy, blood stem cell transplantation, have had worldwide impact, boosting survival rates from nearly zero to up to 90 percent for some blood cancers. This year, approximately 60,000 transplants will be performed worldwide.

Thomas joined the faculty of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1974 as its first director of medical oncology. He later became the director of the Center’s Clinical Research Division.

Thomas, along with his wife and research partner, Dottie — a trained medical technologist — and a small team of fellow researchers stubbornly pursued transplantation throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite doubts by many prominent physicians of the day.

“Don quite literally wrote the book on marrow transplantation,” said Fred Appelbaum, M.D., director of the Hutchinson Center’s Clinical Research Division. “Don was a hero.”

“To the world, Don Thomas will forever be known as the father of bone marrow transplantation, but to his colleagues at Fred Hutch, he will be remembered as a friend, colleague, mentor and pioneer,” said Larry Corey, M.D., president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“The work Don Thomas did to establish marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for leukemia and other otherwise fatal diseases of the blood is responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe.”

Islander physician Brenda Sandmaier is a member of the Clinical Research Division at the FHCRC and a professor in the Medical Oncology Division at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Dr. Thomas hired Sandmaier in 1986.

“Don was the visionary for the work but also a strong leader,” said Sandmaier.

Early research conducted by Thomas and his group was difficult and unprecedented. Many other physicians of the day considered the treatments infeasible and dangerous.

Patients who could be cured often died after being weakened by treatments or felled by a simple infection.

Thomas and his team kept at it.

“It was a partnership between nurses, doctors, researchers and patients,” Sandmaier said.

He was a humble and patient man,” she continued, adding that Thomas came to her son Travis’ West Mercer Elementary School class a few years ago to talk about his Nobel Prize.

Bone marrow transplantation led to stem cell transplants and even to the development of other seemingly simple but essential medical tools such as the Hickman Line. The device is an intravenous catheter most often used for the administration of chemotherapy or other medications, or withdrawal of blood for analysis.

Thomas came to Seattle in 1963 to be the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He led a small team that labored in the basement of temporary facilities at the former brick U.S. Public Health Hospital on Beacon Hill.

A FHCRC press release described their mission.

“They sought to do what others were convinced would never work: to cure leukemia and other cancers of the blood by destroying a patient’s diseased bone marrow with near-lethal doses of radiation and chemotherapy, and then rescuing the patient by transplanting healthy marrow.”

Thomas plainly knew it was controversial.

“In the 1960s in particular, and even into the 1970s, there were very responsible physicians who said this would never work,” Thomas said in an interview. “Some suggested it shouldn’t go on as an experimental thing.”

Seattle surgeon William Hutchinson, M.D., decided to support Thomas and his team and build the group a permanent home. The original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center building in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood opened in 1975.

For more, go to www.fhcrc.org.

 

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