At an early age, Dr. Paul Martin knew medicine was his calling.
Back in 1975, when bone marrow transplantation was in its infancy, and a leukemia diagnosis meant chances of survival were little more than zero, Martin had one of those aha! moments that makes everything crystal clear.
"I was reading an article written by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and members of his team in Seattle, describing their work using bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia," he said. "I couldn't have predicted that Dr. Thomas would go on to win the Nobel Prize for his research, but as I was reading that article, I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do."
Influenced by Thomas’ paper, Martin came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as an oncology fellow in 1977 and became fascinated by the challenge of caring for leukemia patients.
He was particularly drawn to the problem of graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD, a common complication of bone marrow transplant. In GVHD, immune cells from the donor attack patients’ healthy cells, which they view as foreign. This can lead to problems in many different organ systems, causing disability or even death.
Martin’s research is helping define better ways to prevent and treat GVHD. He also studies how tiny variants sprinkled throughout the genomes of patients and donors affect GVHD and other transplant outcomes. He hopes what he learns will help improve donor-recipient matching and reveal targets at which to aim new cancer drugs.
Martin has served in a variety of leadership roles in his field and at Fred Hutch. Among these, he has led international efforts to develop research priorities for GVHD and standardize how results are measured in clinical trials of new treatments for the condition, especially in its chronic form.
For 14 years, Martin served as director of Fred Hutch's Long-Term Follow-Up Program. The program provides life-long monitoring and care of patients following a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant. This enormously gratifying position allowed him to influence the direction of research — always with an eye to improving the lives of patients following a transplant.
“I have seen so many changes during my time here, so many positive changes,” he said.
When Martin first started in medicine, doctors didn't perform transplants on patients over 50.
“Today, age doesn’t seem to be a limiting factor," he said. "And we have learned to manage infections so much better, thanks to help from infectious disease experts. We have seen enormous improvements in this area, preventing or controlling problems that claimed so many transplant patients in earlier years.”
Although most of Martin's work involves research, patient care has been an important component of his career. His dedication to his patients and his work has earned him a long list of admirers.
Outside of work, with six young grandchildren and a never-ending stream of new books to read and places to visit, he and his wife have plenty to keep them busy.
And for a little extra company, there’s his dog, Kashi.
“He loves fetching the ball and sitting in the reading chair with me when he’s not begging for bits of kibble,” Martin said.
— Updated Feb. 20, 2019