Dr. Paul Neiman, founding member of Fred Hutch, dies at 78

Physician-scientist led the charge in prioritizing fundamental research, built bridges between lab and clinic
Dr. Paul Neiman
Dr. Paul Neiman Fred Hutch file photo

Dr. Paul Neiman, a founding member of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a transplant physician and cancer biologist, died Oct. 11 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 78.

Neiman was also one of the founders and leaders of the Basic Sciences Division, one of the Hutch’s five scientific divisions, as well as the division that would later become the Human Biology Division. He served as director of Basic Sciences from 1983 to 1995. He retired from Fred Hutch in 2010, but he continued to work behind the scenes to secure new sources of funding for the Basic Sciences Division as well as writing monographs on the history of Fred Hutch and on biomedical research organizations. 

He was well known in the scientific community for his fundamental research on the interplay between viruses and cancer cells, making key discoveries about the nature of retroviruses, the type of virus that includes HIV.

But at the Hutch, he was perhaps better known for making connections and building bridges, said many of his colleagues.

“He loved to think about connections between people and which connections will work and make things happen,” said Dr. Robert Eisenman, a molecular biologist who was one of Neiman’s first recruits to join the newly formed Hutch, in an earlier interview. “If it weren’t for him, the face of the Hutch would be really different now.”

Eisenman’s colleague and a former postdoctoral fellow in Neiman’s lab, Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Maxine Linial, agreed. “I think there wouldn’t be a Hutch as a first-class research institute if it wasn’t for Paul Neiman,” she said in a 2015 interview with Fred Hutch News Service.

Neiman’s passion for connections arose from his own career, much of which was spent balancing time between two very disparate worlds. As an M.D., he was a kind and compassionate doctor to patients living with — and often dying from — leukemia in the very early days of transplant medicine. He was part of the late Dr. E. Donnall Thomas’ original team of transplant physicians who developed the first bone marrow transplant protocols for the treatment of leukemia. And, Neiman was a successful lab researcher; he studied the molecular details of oncogenesis, or how tumors come to be.

“Paul was known for being as dedicated to his patients as he was to the fundamental research he championed,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland. “He recognized that having great basic science at a cancer research center was essential to future advances for patients.”

Neiman is survived by his wife of 56 years, Carol Neiman; his sons, Aaron Neiman (Nancy Hollingsworth) of Port Jefferson, New York and David Neiman (Keiko Kawasaki) of Seattle; his grandchildren Emma, Benjamin, Leah, Helen and Henry Neiman; and his brother, Lewis Neiman.

A doctor with a love for research

Neiman grew up in Seattle, as did Carol. He went to Seattle’s Franklin High School and then to the University of Washington for both college and medical school.

Neiman caught the research bug as a medical student in the early 1960s and quickly came to see how biological research and medicine can complement each other. His medical school roommate 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.

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 study leukemia at the National Cancer Institute for a few years after receiving his medical degree in 1964. 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. He and his colleagues used that virus as a route to better understand the molecules that drive all tumor formation. 

Fred Hutch's original bone marrow transplant team, 1989.
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

When Fred Hutch opened its doors in 1975, Neiman was part of the original small group of faculty and helped shape much of the cancer center’s research efforts, including directing scientific programs from 1980 to 1983.

“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 former colleague Dr. Fred Appelbaum, a transplantation doctor and deputy director and executive vice president of Fred Hutch, in a 2015 interview. “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’s own work is one of many examples of how fundamental research has led to new, unexpected understandings of human health. When he first launched his research laboratory in the early 1970s, the scientific community largely believed that human cancer was caused by retroviruses — the class of viruses that includes HIV — just as the sarcoma Neiman studied in chickens is triggered by the Rous virus.

Although that theory later proved false, Neiman and his colleagues’ work on Rous and similar viruses shed light on the workings of both retroviruses and oncogenes (genes that trigger cancer under certain circumstances and can be co-opted by some retroviruses). Many scientists in the 1960s and ’70s made vital contributions to understanding these at-the-time mysterious viruses; Neiman compellingly demonstrated the presence of foreign DNA from retroviruses stitched into the genomes of infected cells, largely settling what was then a very controversial issue.

That finding — published in 1972, years before HIV was discovered — was a critical piece in understanding how retroviruses work. Rous, HIV, and their kin 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 as the host cell replicates and divides.

Neiman’s work also led to further studies in his laboratory that elucidated how certain oncogenes drive cancer cells to act differently from healthy cells. He showed that programmed cell death — a natural process known as apoptosis — plays a role in tumors spurred by oncogenes, and in one of his last papers, he demonstrated that a critical oncogene called Myc causes genomic damage and instability in cancer cells.

Training other physician-scientists

Neiman also helped further the careers of many other physicians who aspired to branch out into research. Just as he was given a chance to try his hand at the bench without the traditional scientific training of a Ph.D., so too he helped other medical students and residents gain research experience at the Hutch.

“Paul was pivotal in my career,” said Dr. Craig Thompson, a medical oncologist who is now president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Thompson trained with Neiman as well as with Fred Hutch molecular biologist and special advisor to the director’s office Dr. Mark Groudine.

Neiman was “willing to take a chance on a young, eager physician with no demonstrable skills in molecular biology,” Thompson said. “He was an amazing mentor, giving both encouragement and criticism when they were warranted, and most importantly, providing his trainees with the latitude to explore new avenues of research. Even today when I think about giving advice to emerging physician-scientists, I think back to what Paul would have advised.”

Groudine, too, benefited from Neiman’s mentorship. Groudine had completed both an M.D. and a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and a year of postdoctoral work with the late Dr. Harold Weintraub at Princeton University when he came to Seattle to do a residency at UW. He met Neiman at a scientific conference before his move, and the Hutch physician-scientist offered Groudine the chance to continue his own research in Neiman’s lab during his residency.

“Paul was a wonderful mentor who was instrumental in shaping my career,” Groudine said. “Upon transitioning to my own lab and later to administrative positions, Paul and I remained close colleagues and friends, and he continued to provide guidance as my career followed in his footsteps.”

Neiman also was instrumental in establishing a joint Ph.D. program between the Hutch and UW, known as the Molecular & Cellular Biology Graduate Program, which today is among the most well-regarded doctoral programs in the U.S.

Why a cancer center needs basic science

But Neiman did not just train individual physicians to become researchers. He also saw the value of conducting fundamental research in biology at the Hutch, where basic scientists mingled with their clinical colleagues for close collaborations that would ultimately lead to better treatments for cancer patients.

Soon after the Hutch’s inception, Neiman and his colleagues realized that basic biological research needed to be expanded and formalized. In 1981, the Hutch formed the Basic Sciences Division.

“Treating patients was clearly of immense importance and ongoing, but Paul felt that the basic research was an investment in the future of medicine,” Eisenman said. “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 Groudine and Weintraub, felt strongly that its members be allowed to follow their own drive and interests unhampered by overly rigid research programs. That emphasis on exploration was grounded in the understanding that many of the most important medical advances have come from unexpected and unpredictable findings in basic research.

The model that Neiman helped establish is one that the Hutch’s basic scientists strive to uphold today, said Dr. Jonathan Cooper, the current director of the Basic Sciences Division.

“He looked after everyone as best he could, was always accessible, and really cared about the faculty, staff, and center,” Cooper said. “His stamp on the division still stands — his belief in individual, independent research labs, each treated as equitably as possible — is the culture we hold dear.”

A funeral service will be held this Sunday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m. at the Butterworth Funeral Home-Arthur A. Wright Chapel, 520 W. Raye St., Seattle, WA 98119. Colleagues and friends are welcome to attend.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to the Neiman Family Fund at Fred Hutch.

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