In 1987, at the age of 40, world-renowned Spanish tenor José Carreras was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia and given long odds of survival. He underwent a bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that would cure his disease. A year later, in gratitude, he established a Barcelona-based foundation to support and promote the kind of research that saved his life. That research was pioneered by Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who received a Nobel Prize in 1990 for developing BMT.
Today, three decades later, the lives of Carreras and Thomas, who died in 2012 at the age of 90, continue to be intertwined through an endowed chair named in their honor that was established in 2007 by the Seattle-based Friends of José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation.
Hematologist Dr. Geoffrey Hill, a physician-scientist who was recently recruited from Australia to lead Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation at Fred Hutch, is the third and most recent recipient of the José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research. The chair provides $425,000 in total funding over five years. Hill is also the third recipient of the brown wooden captain’s-style chair originally owned by Thomas.
“It was clear from my hematology training, right from the early days, that Don Thomas and the Hutch represented the center of the bone marrow transplantation world,” he said at a reception held Aug. 8 at the Hutch to celebrate his endowed chair and July 1 appointment to the Clinical Research Division faculty. “It is such an honor to be here,” said Hill, who previously led the bone marrow transplantation and cancer programs at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane. His research focuses on the immunological processes that underlie graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD, a potentially life-threatening complication of stem cell transplantation.
Hill said he plans to use the position and funding to progress his research into integrating bone marrow transplantation and immune therapies to minimize leukemia relapse and GVHD.
He inherited the chair from Fred Hutch Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Bruce Clurman, a clinical researcher who held the Carreras/Thomas chair for a three-year term, from 2014 to 2017. Clurman, who now holds the Rosput Reynolds Endowed Chair, studies the molecular pathways that drive cancer cells to develop and multiply, and he designs therapies that target these pathways to drive cancer cells toward a path of self-destruction.
“What an honor it has been to have my name associated with giants like Don Thomas and José Carreras,” Clurman said in introducing Hill. “It’s been so special to be part of this tradition — and now to pass it on to Geoff.”
In attendance at the reception was the inaugural recipient of the Carreras/Thomas endowed chair, Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem, a Fred Hutch oncologist, stem cell and gene therapy researcher who held the chair from 2009 to 2014. Kiem, whose research focuses on genetically manipulating stem cells to treat cancers, HIV and genetic diseases, currently holds the Endowed Chair for Cell and Gene Therapy.
Speakers at the reception, which featured a backdrop of flamenco guitar and much good-natured banter, included:
The event concluded with video-recorded remarks by the “Third Tenor” himself.
“With his expertise and research, we will continue to be at the cutting edge of transplantation,” Carreras said of Hill. “The research being done at the Fred Hutchinson is a great example of how scientific advances can lead to cures.”
Carreras also gave a nod to the physician-scientist whose work was instrumental in curing him more than 30 years ago: “Following in Dr. Thomas’ exemplary footsteps, researchers at the Hutch are at the forefront of a new generation of therapies aimed at curing cancer.”
Endowed chairs provide sustained funding that helps retain the best researchers and enhance efforts to recruit the finest minds in the world. Such funding frees Hutch scientists to pursue innovative research directions and collaborations that make significant contributions to lifesaving research. Endowments also provide donors an opportunity to establish a lasting legacy, as by design they are sustainable resources that are continually replenished by investment returns.
When the Carreras/Thomas chair was established in 2007, it was the third-ever endowment in the history of the Hutch. Today there are nearly 20 endowed chairs at the Hutch. Gilliland’s goal is to have 40 such chairs in place by Dec. 31, 2019.
Toward that end, the Fred Hutch board of trustees approved an unprecedented matching program through which a $2 million endowed faculty chair can be established with a first-time donor pledge of $1 million, which is complemented by an equal investment of $1 million from Fred Hutch. Matching funds are drawn from income generated by the Hutch’s success in extending the reach of its scientific innovations through partnerships with the private sector, including more than 30 spinoffs launched over the past four decades.
“Each match is a reinvestment that transforms our commercialization and business development success into direct support of a valued scientist,” said Kelly O’Brien, vice president of Philanthropy. “And each donor who makes this leadership gift helps to ensure that our faculty have the support they need to accelerate the prevention, detection and treatment of cancers and other diseases.”
Kristen Woodward, a former associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, had been in communications at Fred Hutch for more than 20 years. Before that, she was a managing editor at the University of Michigan Health System and a reporter/editor at The Holland Sentinel, a daily in western Michigan. She has received many national awards for health and science writing. She received her B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.