They move like a well-oiled machine. Fred Appelbaum deftly sautés dinner's main course while his wife chops a flurry of crisp vegetables for a salad. This ritual they share — a meal for two, intimate conversation over a glass of wine — is a much-anticipated reward at the end of Appelbaum's long days as head of the Fred Hutch's Clinical Research Division and its treatment arm, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Decades of working with cancer patients teaches you to savor everyday pleasures like the teasing notes of coriander and cumin in a simmering pot of curry or getting to hug your child, Appelbaum said. And it fortifies his resolve to keep moving cancer care forward. He's determined to improve screening, enhance treatment and stop cancer from returning.
As a medical student in the early 1970s, Appelbaum happened upon Dr. E. Donnall Thomas' initial description of bone-marrow transplantation in a medical journal. The pioneering technique eventually earned Thomas the Nobel Prize and transformed leukemia and related cancers, once thought incurable, into highly treatable diseases with survival rates as high as 90 percent.
"I read that article, and it was like a lock and key," Appelbaum said. "That's what I wanted to do, and I hoped to work with Don."
Bone-marrow transplants became the cornerstone of the newly formed Hutch, and it wasn't long before Appelbaum was recruited to join Thomas' team of medical mavericks in Seattle making historic inroads against blood cancers.
Now he holds the job that Thomas once held, and he has spent decades building on Thomas' groundbreaking innovations. Appelbaum has been an innovator in his own right, refining transplant procedures, conducting clinical trials, and caring for patients.
Part of that job is extending the Center's patient research beyond transplants. "We've expanded our role in the more common solid tumors and have created nontransplant approaches to blood cancers," he said. "We've made substantial gains in treating prostate, colon, pancreatic, lung, breast and ovarian cancers, but we have a long way to go."
Inspired by the leadership and clinical insights of his mentors, Appelbaum envisions a future in which cancer can be managed instead of feared.
"We'll be able to tell from a drop of blood who has early cancer or is at risk for cancer," he said. "We'll remove it at an initial stage or vaccinate against its return. I'm quite confident that what Don Thomas taught us about the power of the human immune system will come into play."