Dr. Alex Fefer pioneered research to prove the immune system can be harnessed to fight malignancy. Dr. Fefer, who died Oct. 3 at age 72.

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The first vaccine to treat cancer reached the market this year, thanks to Seattle biotech Dendreon. Thanks are also due another Seattleite: Dr. Alex Fefer. His pioneering research was the first to prove that the immune system can be harnessed to fight malignancy. Several vaccines similar to Dendreon’s are in the pipeline, all grounded in the principles Fefer uncovered four decades ago.

Dr. Fefer, who died Oct. 3 at age 72, was also a member of the original bone-marrow transplantation team at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Throughout his career, he loved working with patients, and they loved him back. But on the soccer field, he was a fierce — if injury-prone — competitor.

“He pulled more leg muscles and groins than anybody I knew, but he always bounced back,” said his friend and teammate Norman McCormick.

Dr. Fefer played a match Oct. 1 before departing for a weekend meeting of the International Society for the Biological Therapy of Cancer in Washington, D.C. He was to receive a team award recognizing his work and that of fellow scientists at the UW and Hutch. He died in his hotel room of an apparent heart arrhythmia, said his wife, Thea Fefer.

Dr. Fefer’s early years were marked by turmoil. He was born in 1938 in Siberia, where his father perished in a Stalinist prison camp. After World War II, Alex Fefer and his mother made their way to Poland, then to a camp in Berlin for Jews and other displaced persons. His mother remarried, and the family immigrated to New York City in 1949. He was 11 and spoke no English.

A high-school history teacher helped set the course for the young man’s future by urging him to apply for a full scholarship to Harvard — which he won.

Dr. Fefer’s gregarious personality at first steered him toward a career in psychiatry. But he became hooked on research after helping out in a colleague’s lab at Stanford medical school.

It was as a young scientist at the National Cancer Institute that Dr. Fefer conducted a series of experiments that showed mice develop an immune response to tumors. That immunity could be transferred to other mice, via an injection of white blood cells.

Until then, most scientists pooh-poohed the idea the immune system could fight cancer, said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, director of clinical research at the Hutch. “Those experiments were truly groundbreaking.”

Dr. Fefer’s work intrigued Dr. Donnall Thomas, who was launching the Seattle-based bone-marrow-transplant research that would later earn him the Nobel Prize.

As part of the fledgling transplant group, Dr. Fefer helped patients through what was then a grueling ordeal. “There was a special something in the way he talked to patients and their families that made them think they could do it, and they could come out the other side and have some hope of an extended life, and a quality of life,” Mrs. Fefer said.

Dr. Fefer later was appointed as a professor at the University of Washington, a post he held until his retirement in 2006.

His subsequent research focused on biological proteins called interleukins, which had promise as potential immune boosters. Though some of the early results were discouraging, later studies have revived interest in the field, Appelbaum said.

“Alex would have loved to watch the next five years. There’s going to be an explosion in our ability to use the immune system to fight cancer.”

Dr. Fefer mentored many young scientists, including several who are now leading cancer-vaccine researchers. “Some scientists are very jealous of their work and hold onto it to the detriment of young people,” Appelbaum said. “Alex was incredibly generous with his ideas, his thoughts and his work.”

After retirement, Dr. Fefer sometimes played soccer four times a week. One of his nicknames was “mosquito,” reflecting both his small stature and his pesky defense, McCormick said.

“He was not the best player on the field. But I used to point out that he was the most valuable member of our team.”

That’s because the over-60 sports crowd adores an amiable doctor.

“Anybody with a medical problem could go to him, and he could translate what their doctors had told them into words they could understand,” McCormick said with a laugh.

In addition to his wife of 51 years, Dr. Fefer is survived by his sons, Mark, of Seattle, and Avram, of New York City; and his sister Fay Nicoll, of Boca Raton, Fla.

The family suggests memorials be sent to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com