A life in tune

Erlinda Santos balances science and song after more than four decades at Fred Hutch
Erlinda Santos
"I'm really glad that I am able to contribute to the day when, finally, cancer will be cured, hopefully," said Erlinda Santos, a research tech supervisor in the Sandmaier Lab at Fred Hutch. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The woman loops light green yarn around her crochet hook as the old voices wash over her. Nat King Cole. Andy Williams. Sinatra.

She stitches the soft strands into tight rows. It will be a baby blanket for her niece. But the threads of this small, quiet moment are equally intertwined with her big, rigorous life — the similar precision of her handicraft and her work in a cancer research lab, the tug of faraway family, the music.

Erlinda Santos, who has logged more than 40 years hunting for cures at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, may be the only Filipino-born scientist in the nation whose research is partially rooted in American crooners. Perry Como. Pat Boone. Elvis. 

In her childhood home outside Manila, her father studied via U.S. correspondence courses to become an electronics technician. Using that knowledge, he bought and placed jukeboxes in local restaurants, maintaining the machines and reaping the coins patrons plunked in to hear 1950s dinner tunes on 45-rpm records.

“We were brought up from those jukeboxes,” said Santos, 72. “That’s how my parents financed our educations, through jukeboxes. They worked so hard.”

A half-century later, she’s a research tech supervisor in the Fred Hutch lab of Dr. Brenda Sandmaier, using radioactive isotopes to develop conditioning regimens with minimal toxicity to extend the benefit of stem cell transplants to more patients.

That branch of medicine, pioneered at Fred Hutch, has progressed in parts under the nose of Santos. For perspective, when Sandmaier became her boss in 1991, Santos already had logged nearly two decades at the center.

Strength, determination, conviction

“I wouldn’t be able to do the science without her there. Really, it’s her precision, her accuracy,” said Sandmaier, a transplantation physician-scientist at the Hutch and the University of Washington. “I feel like I have a national treasure. And she always says: ‘Thank you for giving me a job.’

“She’s so sweet, but she has this strength and determination and great personal conviction,” Sandmaier added. “People think she’s so quiet. But somebody once said to her: ‘Oh, you’re so submissive.’ This was [under] a boss previous to me. [Erlinda] said, ‘Heck, I tell people what I think and what I do, you just don’t see it.’ She’s totally a wonderful person.”

Perhaps her two largest life decisions came by suggestion. Santos pursued science in the Philippines on the advice of an aunt who noted her math skills. For a short time, she also worked as a schoolteacher. She came to America in 1972 on the recommendation of a fellow teacher who told her U.S. companies were hiring scores of professionals from overseas.

Another teacher she knew already had migrated to Tacoma, Washington, where she had relatives, so Santos took the same route. Once there, more friends suggested she join them in a Seattle job hunt.

At the University of Washington, she applied as a lab aide, telling them: “No matter what job, I’ll just take it.” As her application was reviewed, she worked for about five months as a seamstress at a coat factory and for about six months as a Seattle schoolteacher, creating questions for math and science tests. 

“I was putting away the textbooks for the summer and then the University of Washington called. And that’s how I started this job,” Santos said.

It was 1973. Her first tasks, including autoclaving, came in labs overseen by Dr. Rainer Storb — then a colleague of Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the father of bone marrow transplantation and, eventually, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. In 1975, Santos helped move the team’s labs to the original, brand-new Fred Hutch campus on First Hill. Then, in 1998, she moved the lab to the current location on Lake Union.

‘You can’t think of anybody better’

“She’s a very precise technician. I mean, you can’t think of anybody better,” said Storb, head of Fred Hutch’s Transplantation Biology Program since 1980. “She’s been quite a find, I have to say. Whatever hunch I had was right on the mark.”

One of her early scientific victories under Storb involved rebutting a then-hot phenomenon called serum-blocking factors, thought to play a role in everything from treating cancers to boosting transplantation tolerance. Through a series of 1970s studies in animal models and human patients, Storb’s team could not confirm the factors worked as promised — a thesis that had been trumpeted by some of their Fred Hutch colleagues.

“As a result, we published a series of papers basically saying these findings by these prominent people were incorrect. And that created a lot of tension within the Hutch because these people were one floor above us,” Storb said.

“Erlinda was heavily involved in these studies, which required an enormous amount of precision. You know, when you want to disprove something, you have to be really, absolutely, utterly sure that you are correct because you are ruining somebody else’s reputation.”

Santos’s latest work has involved investigating the use of a molecule called a monoclonal antibody coupled to a potent radioactive isotope, astatine-211.

“So, instead of giving [some cancer patients] total-body irradiation, we use astatine-211 bound to the monoclonal antibodies to target the cancer cells. That will eliminate the cancer itself,” Santos said.

“I’m really glad that I am able to contribute to the day when, finally, cancer will be cured, hopefully. I’m really proud of that and to be part of it.”

But cancer is something Santos herself faced in 2009, when she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer. It was Sandmaier who urged her to seek a second opinion at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutch. Santos soon underwent a mastectomy.

Santos also asked Sandmaier to accompany her to the SCCA appointment by explaining: “I don’t want to worry my family.”

Inside Santos’ home in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood — not far from her first lab job — sits a symbol of those enduring family ties: a piano.

When her parents were in Seattle with her some years ago, they initially bought an organ. Her dad played by ear. They later exchanged the organ for a piano. She took lessons until her parents returned to the Philippines.

Two years ago, Santos found a new piano teacher who lives five houses down. He helped polish her skills on the keys and, together, they composed 11 songs, including the titles “My Valentine” and “Song of My Heart.” Another piece is called “Love’s Broken Promise.” They filed the songs with the U.S. Copyright Office, receiving a copyright number in 2014.

“I started by just playing notes then I hear the melody then I think of a title and then words,” Santos said. “I am not taking lessons anymore. I try to find time to play some of the pieces.”

But all of that music — her piano creations and the Perry Como tunes accompanying her crocheting — wraps around her life like a gorgeous chorus, carrying Santos back to Manila, to her parents and to the jukeboxes.

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

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