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DR. E. DONNALL THOMAS PIONEERED BONE MARROW TRANSPLANTATION  AND RECEIVED THE NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE IN 1990.

DR. E. DONNALL THOMAS PIONEERED BONE MARROW TRANSPLANTATION AND RECEIVED THE NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE IN 1990. Photo by Suzie Fitzhugh

Remembering the father of bone marrow transplantation

The world lost one of the greatest figures in 21st century medicine when Dr. E. Donnall Thomas died on October 20, 2012, at the age of 92.

For his pioneering work developing bone marrow transplantation, Thomas received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His work was foundational in the creation of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. With more than 1 million bone marrow transplantations performed throughout the world, Thomas' work has touched – and saved countless lives.

One of the people deeply affected by Thomas was his friend and protégé Fred Appelbaum, newly named Hutch deputy director and longtime director of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and executive director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

In 1970, Appelbaum was a medical student when he happened to pick up a medical journal featuring a paper by Thomas on the use of bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for leukemia.

The radical concept captured Appelbaum's imagination, and he dedicated his studies and career to the emerging field of transplantation research. In 1977, Appelbaum was working at the National Institutes of Health, researching marrow transplantation, when Thomas himself called to offer a position at the Hutch, which had opened in Seattle two years earlier.

It was an incredible turn of events for Appelbaum, who had closely followed Thomas' pioneering research ever since he picked up that medical journal in 1970.

"Honestly, to me, it was like the heavens opening, God looking down and saying: ‘Would you like to come to Seattle?'" he said. It was the start of a long friendship and collaboration that helped to establish Appelbaum as a leading expert in transplantation research and care.

NEWLY NAMED HUTCH DEPUTY DIRECTOR FRED APPELBAUM WAS INSPIRED TO STUDY TRANSPLANTATION BY DON THOMAS. Photo by Matt Hagen

To Appelbaum, Thomas epitomized the classic image of the physician-researcher who cares deeply for his patients and dedicates his life to the science of helping countless others.

"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," Fred said.

At Fred Hutch, where he was a mentor and inspiration to so many, Thomas was a larger than life figure who was also counted by many as a dear friend.

"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 Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of Fred Hutch, shortly after Thomas' death. "The work Don 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."

Thomas came to Seattle in 1963 to be the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Thomas led a small team that sought to do what many medical experts at the time were convinced would never work: 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. The goal was to establish a fully functioning and cancer-free blood and immune system.

Alongside his research partner and wife, Dottie – a trained medical technologist – Thomas stubbornly pursued transplantation throughout the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, hematologists and oncologists preferred to treat patients with drugs, and prevailing thought was that the transplant procedure was so radical and dangerous it was unethical to administer to patients. 

IN THIS SEGMENT, DON THOMAS TALKS ABOUT WHAT TO HIM WAS THE MOST EXCITING ASPECT OF RECEIVING HIS 1990 NOBEL PRIZE.

But years of research advances by Thomas and his colleagues steadily improved bone marrow transplantation and reduced the risk posed by its side effects. That progress, as well as the procedure's potential, convinced Seattle surgeon William Hutchinson to support Thomas and his team by establishing their own dedicated research facility. Fred Hutch broke ground in 1972 and opened in 1975.

In 1974, Thomas joined the Hutch's faculty as its first director of medical oncology. He later became associate director and eventually director of the Clinical Research Division. He stepped down from that position at age 70 in 1990 and officially retired from the Hutch in 2002.

During his tenure at Fred Hutch, Thomas recruited scientists and physicians who could help address each of the numerous challenges associated with transplantation.

"Every cancer center would aspire to creating new approaches to curing cancer, but very few have had that good fortune. Don and Dottie's work created a completely new paradigm of cancer treatment that we continue to exploit to this day," said Dr. Lee Hartwell, Fred Hutch director emeritus and 2001 Nobel laureate, in a video commemorating Thomas' life. 

One of Appelbaum's favorite stories about Thomas' humble spirit came from the day he received word that he won the Nobel Prize. When Thomas came to work at the hospital that day, the first thing he did was to go to the nurses' station and congratulate and thank his colleagues all for the work and dedication they had shown.

"He was incredibly generous to his team. It's just the kind of man he was," Appelbaum said.

Don Thomas is survived by his wife, Dottie, and their three children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Fred Hutch's bone marrow transplantation research is made possible in part through the contributions of numerous benefactors, including a generous gift from Dr. Steve Collins made in memory of Dr. Don Thomas.

DR. E. DONNALL THOMAS ACCEPTING THE 1990 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE.
DR. E. DONNALL THOMAS ACCEPTING THE 1990 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE.
Photo courtesy of Nobel Foundation
“Every cancer center would aspire to creating new approaches to curing cancer, but very few have had that good fortune. Don and Dottie's work created a completely new paradigm of cancer treatment that we continue to exploit to this day. ”

– Nobel Laureate and Fred Hutch
Director Emeritus Lee Hartwell

DON AND DOTTIE THOMAS AT 2005 PATIENT REUNION
DON AND DOTTIE THOMAS AT 2005 PATIENT REUNION
Photo by Jim Linna

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