Center News

Al-Johani Award will support new transplant protocol for Crohn's disease

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center clinical investigator George McDonald will use the prize to 'pay it forward' by studying a new treatment approach for an incurable disease

April 29, 2013
Dr. George McDonald, Clinical Research Division

Dr. George McDonald, Clinical Research Division

Photo by Dean Forbes

Earlier this year during Clinical Oncology Grand Rounds, Clinical Research Division Director Dr. Fred Appelbaum honored Dr. George McDonald with an award made possible more than a decade ago by a former patient.

"This award started from a $125,000 donation to the Hutchinson Center from Dr. Ali Al-Johani, who was so grateful for the care he received when he was here being treated for leukemia that he wanted to 'pay it forward,'" Appelbaum said.

McDonald plans to do the same by using the $10,000 prize on a protocol that may one day provide a cure for Crohn's disease.

"The Al-Johani Award comes at a particularly good time in my career," McDonald said. "I recently opened a new protocol to study the potential for allogeneic bone marrow transplantation to cure patients suffering from this disease—a polygenic disorder of immune regulation that can lead to severe intestinal inflammation and disability.

"The monetary part of the Al-Johani Award will be spent in support of our new protocol—recruiting, screening and bringing eligible patients to transplant, and establishing a research database and biorepository from transplanted patients," McDonald said.

"George has been an outstanding clinical investigator and really is a walking textbook of medicine, teaching us all so much about transplantation," Appelbaum said of McDonald, who published a paper showing that when patients with both leukemia and Crohn's disease underwent successful bone marrow transplants to cure their leukemia, their Crohn's disease disappeared as well.

About the award and its founder

Every year a committee, which includes representatives from nursing, quality and patient family services, clinical faculty and the division director, chooses the Al-Johani Award recipient. Nominees must demonstrate excellence in science and clinical performance, empathy toward patients and willingness to work on clinical and administrative assistance to improve patient safety and quality care.

"Taking care of transplant patients is a team effort," said McDonald when he received the award earlier this year. "This is like giving the MVP to Bobby Richardson for the '62 Yankees when [Mickey] Mantle and [Roger] Maris were in the outfield at the time."

During the presentation McDonald told a story about how Al-Johani probably planted his seeds of gratitude long before doctors at Fred Hutch cured his leukemia.

"His father sent him [from Saudi Arabia] as a teenager to Lawrence, Kansas to study engineering at Kansas University," said McDonald, who was at KU around the same time on an undergraduate National Science Foundation grant. "When Thanksgiving and Christmas came around, students went home, except those from other countries, who stayed cooped up in the dorms. It was a tradition in Lawrence for people on the surrounding farms to drive their trucks in and pick up all of the foreign students and take them out to the farmhouses for the holidays.

"Ali told me that was the kindest thing people had ever done for him. So I suspect the donation to Fred Hutch partly had its roots in Al-Johani's teenage years. He was, I think, paying it forward."

Hutchinson Center support continues to fund the Al-Johani Award, which includes a crystal plaque.

Al-Johani Award winners:

  • 2001 Drs. David Madtes and Leona Holmberg
  • 2002 Dr. Bob Witherspoon
  • 2003 Dr. Mary Flowers
  • 2004 Dr. Mike Linenberger
  • 2006 Dr. Paul Carpenter
  • 2007 Dr. Paul O'Donnell
  • 2009 Mid-level providers
  • 2010 Dr. Kris Doney
  • 2011 Dr. Jean Sanders
  • 2012 Dr. George McDonald
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.