Dr. E. Donnall Thomas forever changed the world of cancer treatment when he pioneered bone marrow transplantation, a breakthrough that earned him the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. But Thomas’s most powerful legacy is measured in the number of lives saved every year thanks to his groundbreaking work.
When Thomas came to Seattle in 1963, his team at the University of Washington sought to do what others were convinced would never work: cure leukemia and other blood cancers by using radiation and chemotherapy to destroy a patient’s diseased bone marrow, and then rescuing the patient by transplanting healthy marrow. The goal was to establish a new, cancer-free blood and immune system.
The team spent years refining their techniques until they could be carefully used in patients. Then the number of transplant patients slowly grew. And Thomas’s early success convinced Seattle surgeon Dr. William Hutchinson to build the team a permanent home and break ground on the original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center building.
Thomas joined Fred Hutch in 1974. Just three years later, his team published a seminal paper that tracked 110 transplant patients and showed a 16 percent long-term survival rate. From there, the momentum was unstoppable.
Today, bone marrow transplantation and its sister therapy, blood stem cell transplantation, are one of cancer treatment’s greatest success stories. A diagnosis of leukemia was once considered a death sentence. Now, some leukemias have cure rates of up to 90 percent.
"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 emeritus 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 tens of thousands of people around the globe. His legacy to Fred Hutch cannot be overstated. The success of his lifesaving cancer research built the platform for the breakthrough science that our faculty members in all disciplines continue to produce."
Thomas is survived by two sons and a daughter. His wife, Dottie, died in January 2015 at the age of 92.
To make a donation in Thomas' memory and continue the legacy of his lifesaving research, visit http://getinvolved.fhcrc.org/thomas here. Gifts will be directed to the Clinical Research Division, of which Thomas was the founding director.