Doctor, researcher, patient and pathfinder

Dr. Paul Neiman reflects on 40 years of leadership, collaboration and curiosity
Composite of Dr. Paul Neiman
Dr. Paul Neiman has played many roles at Fred Hutch since its inception 40 years ago. When Neiman retired from research, his friend Dr. Ron Reeder created a composite photo of the researcher and physician in the laboratory to capture the spirit of his many contributions. Photo by Dr. Ron Reeder

In the first floor lobby of the Weintraub Building, which houses Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s basic science research groups, there’s a picture of a laboratory crowded with people.

Or rather, one person — it’s a quirky composite photo of Dr. Paul Neiman, digitally created by his friend and former colleague Dr. Ron Reeder.

“It’s Paul, Paul, Paul, Paul, Paul,” laughed Dr. Ann Reynolds, a Fred Hutch librarian who’s worked with Neiman on several archive and history projects. “That says it right there. Paul’s been involved in so much at the Hutch in addition to his science.”

The picture was unveiled at Neiman’s retirement party in 2009, the same time that the sky-lit lobby where the picture hangs was dubbed the Paul Neiman Atrium.

But Neiman knows a longer backstory of the space that now bears his name.

“You know, this atrium was never supposed to be here,” said the 76-year-old molecular biologist and transplant doctor on a recent visit to the building — and campus — he helped shape as the Hutch’s former scientific director and founder of one of its core scientific divisions.

When the research center moved from its original single-building home in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood to its current campus in South Lake Union in 1993, Neiman helped direct the planning for what would become the Weintraub Building.

He wanted common spaces in the center of every one of the building’s six floors, he said, where researchers could congregate to catch up, brainstorm ideas and otherwise get a fresh perspective on their research outside of their laboratories. It was an idea emblematic of the informal, unenforced but historically successful spirit of scientific collaboration that’s pretty much the epitome of the building’s Basic Sciences Division.

Unfortunately, the six common areas were deemed unsafe in case of fire during construction, so the builders eliminated all but the ground-floor lobby in the building’s atrium.

“[Current Basic Sciences Division director] Jon Cooper used to call this the Neiman Shaft,” joked Neiman.

Neiman, who says he’s honored to have his name and picture so prominently displayed, retired five years ago – mostly. He’s spent much of that time continuing to work on funding sources for basic research as well as writing projects covering the history of the division he helmed.

But the longtime Fred Hutch researcher and former transplant physician started down a new path last year, that of patient.

About a year ago, he started losing weight, ultimately dropping 50 pounds for no apparent reason.

Neiman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2014.

Since then, he’s since been through the wringer with treatments at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance — chemotherapy, radiation, an experimental immunotherapy vaccine and, most recently, a surgery known as the Whipple Procedure that seems to have successfully removed his tumor.

Now in remission, he continues to learn, connect and collaborate with the people around him, something he’s done since joining the Hutch 40 years ago as a member of Dr. E. Donnall Thomas’ original bone marrow transplant team.

Fred Hutch transplant team
Fred Hutch's original bone marrow transplant team, led by the late Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, in 1989. From left: Neiman, the late Dr. Alex Fefer, Thomas, Dr. C. Dean Buckner and Dr. Rainer Storb. Fred Hutch's Arnold Library Archive

‘He’s not bad for a doc’

“He’s a consummate administrator,” said Dr. Robert Eisenman, a molecular biologist who was one of Neiman’s first recruits to join the newly-formed Hutch. “He loves to think about connections between people and which connections will work and make things happen.”

Maybe that’s because Neiman himself has spent much of his career living in two very disparate worlds.

He was a kind and compassionate doctor to patients living with — and often dying from — leukemia in the very early days of transplant medicine. And he was also a successful lab researcher studying the molecular details of oncogenesis, or how tumors come to be, despite lacking formal scientific training.

Neiman was a medical student at the University of Washington in the early 1960s; his roommate at the time worked summer jobs in a UW laboratory group that figured out how methotrexate, one of the earliest available chemotherapies, worked at the molecular level to kill cancer cells.

“I got the idea that this is really serious stuff,” Neiman said. So when his roommate graduated, Neiman asked to take over his position to conduct research during the summers while he was a medical student, and that’s where he fell in love with basic biological research.

That love led him to research leukemia at the National Cancer Institute for a few years. He joined Thomas’ Seattle transplant team in 1968, when Thomas still ran a small unit in what was then Providence Hospital (now a Swedish Hospital campus). Neiman also started his research laboratory to study a unique retrovirus called the Rous sarcoma virus that causes cancer in chickens, which he and his colleagues used as a route to better understand the molecules that drive all tumor formation.

“What I thought was so remarkable about Paul was that as the same time as he’s head of the Basic Sciences Division … he was actually also right there taking care of patients,” said Neiman’s colleague Dr. Fred Appelbaum, a transplantation doctor and deputy director and executive vice president of Fred Hutch. “There was nobody else that had such a broad spectrum of talents going all the way from the very early days of oncogenesis to actual clinical transplantation.”

Neiman has a more modest take on his varied interests.

“I’m just a dilettante … a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he said, chuckling. “If you ask the clinical people, they’ll tell you, ‘He’s not bad for a lab scientist.’ If you ask the lab scientists: ‘He’s not bad for a doc.’”

When asked why and how Neiman kept up with what he calls “two completely different professions” for so many years (he stopped seeing patients in 1990), he doesn’t have much of an explanation.

“I am what I am, I guess,” he said, shrugging.

Appelbaum gave much the same answer: “He just did.”

‘It’s really a different world’

In the Hutch’s early days, Neiman and the few other basic science researchers he’d recruited were part of what was known as the Medical Oncology program. But he and other Fred Hutch leaders eventually realized basic biological research needed to be expanded and formalized.

In 1981, the Hutch formed the Basic Sciences Division and Neiman became its director.

“Treating patients was clearly of immense importance and ongoing, but Paul felt that the basic research was an investment in the future of medicine,” said Eisenman. “He also had the vision to see that it didn’t necessarily need to be directly related to a medical problem … He saw the value of doing research by following scientific curiosity, that it could have immense payoff. That was his real contribution, seeing that way forward.”

Neiman and his colleagues who molded the Basic Sciences Division, namely Dr. Mark Groudine and the late Dr. Harold Weintraub, felt strongly that its members be allowed to follow their own drive and interests unhampered by overly rigid research programs. That’s because many of the best, most important medical advances have come from unexpected findings in basic research, Neiman said.

“There are so many things that have and will continue to impinge on clinical care that we had no clue about back in the '70s, '80s and '90s,” he said. “That’s all been contributions coming from basic science progress that was not and could not be anticipated except by doing the kind of fundamental research that we do. It’s not a linear process. Nobody knows quite where the next major paradigm shift is going to come from.”

Neiman’s own research has unfolded in surprising ways. When he first began studying the cancer-causing Rous virus in chickens, the scientific community largely believed that human cancer was caused by retroviruses (the class of viruses that includes HIV).

Although that theory later proved false, Neiman’s work more than a decade before HIV was even discovered was key to understanding how HIV and other retroviruses work — they use RNA rather than DNA as their genetic material and convert their genomes to DNA inside infected cells as a means of hitching a ride with the host’s cellular machinery. Neiman was the first to find retrovirus DNA stitched into the genomes of infected cells. His studies also elucidated how oncogenes — genes that trigger cancer under certain circumstances and which can be co-opted by retroviruses — drive cancer cells to act differently from healthy cells.

Now that Neiman is seeing the evolution of modern oncology first-hand as a cancer patient, his faith in basic science is only solidified. He’s especially heartened that, thanks to discoveries spawned from fundamental research, patients like him can “think realistically about living for long periods of time with various kinds of cancers and looking optimistically to maximize the time you have and the quality of the time you have,” he said.

In the decades that he practiced transplantation medicine, “we were working on a very small portfolio of knowledge and concepts,” he said. “Now, with the tremendous advances in molecular biology and genetics and a much deeper understanding of what’s going on when someone develops a cancer … the opportunities that gives us for working with the disease, living with the disease — it’s really a different world.”

‘This is what you did’

His colleagues agree that Neiman succeeded in what he set out to do — craft a respectful, collaborative culture of talented scientists and allow them the freedom to follow new directions. And that was largely due to his comfort level bridging the medical and the scientific, said Dr. Maxine Linial, a Fred Hutch virologist who Neiman recruited 40 years ago.

“Paul was always mindful that you didn’t have to have an M.D. to be a good scientist, and that was very important. At the beginning of the Hutch everyone was an M.D.,” Linial said. “I think there wouldn’t be a Hutch as a first-class research institute if it wasn’t for Paul Neiman.”

Linial’s colleague, Eisenman, agreed: “He fostered an atmosphere of collegiality that is the hallmark of the division, and it’s clearly taken on a life of its own,” he said. “If it weren’t for him, the face of the Hutch would be really different now.”

But what he accomplished was also due to his personality. From his coworkers’ stories, it’s clear that Neiman is tenacious but fair and generous (he stopped taking a salary from the Hutch in 2004, six years before he officially retired).

Neiman was also a bit of an ambassador, helping to rebuild Fred Hutch’s relationship with the University of Washington in the early 1990s, after the two establishments temporarily severed their affiliation. His chief contribution was to construct plans for a joint graduate program between the Hutch and UW, said Appelbaum.

“Paul was wonderful in working that through,” Appelbaum said. “He really took the high road in figuring out what was best for our trainees.”

Although many had tried and failed to establish a graduate program at the Hutch, “I just didn’t give up,” said Neiman, realizing how important it was to have students as part of the fabric of the research center.

“Teaching graduate students how to be scientists is very hard to disentangle in any real way from doing science,” he said. “It’s just built into it.”

Neiman touched a lot of lives and built many things, both tangible and intangible, during his career. The list of people who can vouch for his legacy is long.

But he remembers one compliment, given shortly after the first doctoral students joined the graduate program he built, that was especially meaningful to him.

He had helped recruit Hal Weintraub, after whom the basic sciences building was named, to the Hutch in the late 1970s. Weintraub had an incredible impact on the formation of the Basic Sciences Division, Neiman said, before his death at the age of 49 of an aggressive brain cancer.

“When Hal got sick, he asked me if we could have lunch together. I’m going to get emotional,” Neiman said, pausing to steady his voice. “We met down in the cafeteria [of the Weintraub Building] and we talked about things that he would like to do as a memorial to his career …

“He looked around the cafeteria and he saw all these people sitting around talking — not about personal stuff, but talking science intensely in this environment — and he said, ‘This is the most important thing you did.’”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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