KUOW profiles E. Donnall Thomas and his Nobel Prize-winning work on a once 'radical' cure for leukemia

Fred Hutch research in bone marrow transplantation helped establish Seattle's biotech industry

The foundation of Seattle’s biotech industry can be traced to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s pioneering work on a treatment for leukemia that was once considered radical, according to a new segment produced by Seattle-area NPR affiliate KUOW-FM.

The seven-minute story, which aired Nov. 13, gives a historical perspective on the development of the bone marrow transplant, which earned Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas a Nobel Prize in 1990. About 70,000 people around the world are now treated with the procedure.

But the medical community once thought that bone marrow transplantation, which involves destroying unhealthy bone marrow and replacing it with healthy marrow, was impossible.

Luke Timmerman, founder and editor of the biotech publication Timmerman Report, told KUOW that Seattle is the right place for such ideas to grow.

"We've seen this in multiple industries — Boeing and Microsoft — these were founded by people who had rather strange ideas out of the mainstream,” Timmerman said. "And Seattle, without a lot of people telling you 'you can't do that,' was fertile environment for people to test their quirky ideas."

As the Hutch became a world leader in bone marrow transplantation and cancer research, scientists joined the Seattle team and built on Thomas’ work, KUOW’s Ruby de Luna explained. Some of these entrepreneurial researchers sought to translate their findings into drugs and branched out with their own spinoff companies from the Hutch — numbering 32 spinoffs so far, which would “establish Seattle’s biotech industry,” de Luna said.

KUOW also interviewed Dr. Fred Appelbaum, deputy director and executive director of Fred Hutch, about working with Thomas. Listeners also heard about how far bone marrow transplantation has advanced through a KUOW interview with Dr. Stephanie Lee, a member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch and a transplant physician at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Hutch's clinical-care partner.

The KUOW story is part of a newly launched “City of Dreams” series, which showcases innovators of the Pacific Northwest. 

Molly McElroy, a senior media relations specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about science, education and policy topics at the University of Washington and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Reach her on Twitter @mwmcelroy.

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