Nobel Laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, regarded as the father of bone-marrow transplantation whose work launched the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, died Saturday in Seattle. He was 92.
Nobel Laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, whose groundbreaking work in bone-marrow transplants launched Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, died Saturday. He was 92 and had been suffering from cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Thomas pioneered bone-marrow transplantation, a lifesaving procedure for people with leukemia and other cancers of the blood. It and its sister therapy, blood stem-cell transplantation, work by destroying a patient’s diseased bone marrow with near-lethal doses of radiation and/or chemotherapy, then transplanting healthy marrow.
This year, about 60,000 such transplants will be performed worldwide, including the one millionth transplant since Dr. Thomas’ work began.
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“Can you imagine a single person being responsible for touching that many lives?” said Fred Appelbaum, director of the Hutchinson Center’s Clinical Research Division.
Dr. Thomas, of Clyde Hill, worked stubbornly for years against the widespread belief — including in the medical community — that bone-marrow transplants would never work.
“At the time he first started his pursuit of bone-marrow transplantation, there was the general opinion that transplantation of any human organ would be impossible,” Appelbaum said.
In the 1950s, Dr. Thomas performed the first successful bone-marrow transplant between identical twins, then worked for more than a decade to achieve that result in siblings who were not twins. In the late ’70s, he led a team at the Fred Hutchinson Center that achieved success for people who were not related.
“He was the most influential person in my life, and I’m positive there are many, many scientists in the fields of leukemia, blood diseases and transplantation who would say exactly the same thing,” Appelbaum said.
He described Dr. Thomas as “an incredibly brilliant individual. He was at the same time modest, he was quiet, and he was able to surround himself with great scientists and clinicians and nurses because he was generous with praise and would attribute successes to those individuals around him.”
It took almost two decades after his seminal paper on bone-marrow transplantation was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, in September 1957, for the procedure to become accepted therapy.
“In the 1960s in particular and even into the 1970s, there were very responsible physicians who said this would never work,” Thomas once said. “Some suggested it shouldn’t go on as an experimental thing.”
In 1990, Dr. Thomas shared the Nobel Prize for medicine with Joseph E. Murray of Boston, who performed the first kidney transplant. Dr. Thomas donated his half of the prize money — $700,000 — to the Fred Hutchinson Center.
Dr. Thomas stepped down as director of the center’s Clinical Research Division that same year.
He subsequently edited the first two editions of the seminal reference book on bone-marrow transplantation and contributed a chapter to the third edition in 2004, when the book’s title was changed to “Thomas’ Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.”
Dr. Thomas officially retired in 2002, but a 2005 addendum to his autobiography on the Nobel Prize website says he continued to work about three days a week.
He also actively supported stem-cell research, believing that with appropriate oversight, it “should be directed by scientists, not politicians.”
Dr. Thomas, two other physicians and the cancer research center were sued in 2001 by the spouses of five patients who died in a 1980s leukemia experiment, claiming the defendants were negligent and failed to inform the patients of the risks. The lawsuits were filed after The Seattle Times published a series of articles called “Uninformed Consent: What patients at ‘The Hutch’ weren’t told about the experiments in which they died.”
In April 2004, a jury decided in favor of the cancer research center and against four of the people who sued the center. However, the jury found the center was negligent in the death of a fifth patient whose donor bone marrow was lost in a laboratory mishap. Dr. Thomas grew up in Prairie Hill, Texas, and met his wife when she hit him in the face with a snowball at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I threw the snowball at a friend, and I never could throw straight, and it hit Don in the face. … We spent the afternoon hiking around in the snow, and that was the beginning,” Dottie Thomas said Saturday.
She became his wife and research partner, and later proofread grant proposals and chased down references “nagging everybody to get everything in on time.”
Appelbaum gives her more credit: “If Don was the father of bone-marrow transplantation, Dottie was the mother,” he said. “She worked beside him as a lab technician and later as one of the grant administrators to help program grow, and edited every paper he wrote.”
Dr. Thomas attended Harvard Medical School, after which he was stationed for a time at Madigan General Hospital at Fort Lewis, where Dottie said, “We fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.”
As chief of medicine at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y., Dr. Thomas began studies of marrow grafts, treating relatively few human patients.
The Thomases moved to Seattle in 1963, when he became the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He and his colleagues worked almost exclusively in the laboratory until the late ’60s, postponing work on patients until they resolved issues with the treatment.
Although some prominent physicians still questioned whether bone-marrow transplants could work, the early success convinced Seattle surgeon William Hutchinson to build Dr. Thomas and his team a permanent home.
In 1972, ground broke on the original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — named for William Hutchinson’s baseball hero brother — in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. It opened in 1975. The center moved to its current home on Seattle’s Lake Union about 10 years ago.
Dr. Thomas is also survived by two sons, E. Donnall Thomas Jr. of Montana; Jeffrey Thomas of Mill Creek; daughter Elaine Thomas of Albuquerque, N.M.; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
To make a donation in Dr. Thomas’ memory, visit http://getinvolved.fhcrc.org/thomas. Gifts will be directed to the Clinical Research Division.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.
Seattle Times health reporter Carol M. Ostrom contributed to this report.