The phone call came in 2016 from a parent who was desperate to save her son.
As a pediatric leukemia specialist, Dr. Marie Bleakley was all too familiar with the challenge that the mother on the line, Nicole Gerdin, recounted. Her young son, Nick, had just had his aggressive leukemia put into remission by an experimental therapy, she explained. But his doctors had recommended that he get another grueling therapy, a bone marrow transplant, to give him the best chance of a long-term cure.
So the Iowa family was scouring the country for the best place to take Nick for that lifeline. Everyone they consulted in their search always mentioned one institution: Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where Bleakley is a faculty member. So they called.
On the line, Bleakley’s quiet voice radiated calm and expertise. The family “could tell just by talking to her that we needed to come to Seattle,” said Mike Gerdin, Nicole’s husband and Nick’s dad.
That call was the genesis of the Gerdin family’s trip to Seattle for Nick’s transplant in October 2016. Today, Nick is doing well, an avid athlete who loves his cats.
The call was also a beginning for Bleakley.
Mike Gerdin recounted the dramatic story Tuesday at a reception on the Fred Hutch campus to honor Bleakley as the first Gerdin Family Endowed Chair for Leukemia Research. Alongside Gerdin, Bleakley’s mother, husband and children, her colleagues, and members of Hutch leadership toasted the physician-scientist under the warm August sunshine.
The chair is funded by the generosity of the Gerdin Family Foundation and grew out of the family’s deep respect for the physician who helped guide them through a dark time. The endowed chair comes with research funding that supports Bleakley’s research in perpetuity, allowing the scientist to stay “nimble,” as she put it, to pursue new opportunities for scientific advances as they arise.
The gift will “make our research program bigger and better, and more meaningful to patients in the future,” Bleakley said, thanking the Gerdin family and its foundation for the gift as well expressing gratitude to her family, colleagues and teammates.
Bleakley’s research goal is to improve survival and decrease treatment side effects for patients, especially children, who have high-risk forms of leukemia. She is pioneering methods to improve bone marrow transplantation by maximizing the anti-cancer activity of the transplanted immune cells while minimizing their attack on healthy tissues. Notably, she developed a strategy to weed out, before transplant, certain immune cells that are more likely to cause GVHD. (As part of his transplant care, Nick participated in one of Bleakley’s clinical trials of this procedure. A subsequent trial is still recruiting patients.)
She is also developing genetically engineered cell therapies to aim the killing power of the immune system straight at leukemia cells, including the unique forms of leukemia only found in children and young adults. This spring, Bleakley launched a first-in-human trial of one such strategy she developed, which is designed to prevent or treat relapse after bone marrow transplant.
“We’re honoring one of our best and brightest faculty members with this endowed chair, and that’s Marie Bleakley,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, describing Bleakley’s work as “truly groundbreaking, truly innovative.”
“I know she’s going to do fantastic things with the resources you’ve provided,” said Gilliland, turning to Mike Gerdin.
Other remarks were given by Dr. Nancy Davidson, who heads the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and holds the Hutch’s Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research, and Hutch faculty member and immunotherapy expert Dr. Stanley Riddell.
Riddell was Bleakley’s mentor when she first arrived at the Hutch for specialty training. He recounted the qualities he saw in his young trainee at the time that he knew would make her a successful scientist: a “nose” for potentially transformative science, persistence and commitment, and, as he put it, “complaining.”
That is, he said, Bleakley was never satisfied with her research progress, always wanting it to work better and move faster.
Because she knew, he said, that patients were waiting.