Miklos Kohary had only met with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center physician-scientist Dr. Joachim Deeg a few times when he asked Deeg a key question:
“I asked him, do you believe in the power of the mind?” Kohary recalled at the Oct. 15 evening reception at Fred Hutch at which Deeg was named the first Miklos Kohary and Natalia Zimonyi Kohary Endowed Chair for Cancer Research.
“You don’t always know how a physician will respond,” said Kohary, who was seeing Deeg for myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a precancerous disease of the bone marrow. He was facing MDS at the same time as metastatic prostate cancer. “But he said, ‘Absolutely.’ … I told him, together, we’re going to make history.”
Kohary, a Ferrari enthusiast and former professional soccer player, along with his wife, established the endowed chair “Because I believe in my physician … It wasn’t an easy road — it still isn’t. But I’m going to get to the end of it.”
The chair comes in recognition of Deeg’s “incredible accomplishments and the incredible accomplishment that we see going forward,” said Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gillliland during the chair presentation.
The funds that endow the chair will provide a source of long-term research support to the chairholder. Compared to a single contribution to his research, “I think an endowed chair will do more,” Deeg said. “It gives a certain relevance to what we are doing in this field. It is something that will be passed on to junior people. … It’s the young people who need support, where establishment of a chair is quite relevant for their career development.”
Kohary met Deeg through Hutch prostate cancer researcher Dr. Pete Nelson, who was treating Kohary for his prostate cancer. Kohary was curious to learn more about treatment for his MDS and asked Nelson to recommend an expert. Nelson immediately thought of Deeg.
“Joachim was the right physician for Miklos,” said Nelson, who holds the Endowed Chair for Prostate Cancer Research. “He provides tough love, but he’s also very compassionate and very, very knowledgeable. He has experience, wisdom — exactly what you want in a physician.”
A prostate cancer doc and an MDS doc sharing one patient is an unusual situation, Nelson said — but one that paid Kohary benefits. Because many standard cancer treatments damage the bone marrow, MDS can make it tricky to use them safely. When Nelson found that Kohary’s type of prostate cancer might be susceptible to immunotherapy, he was able to quickly confer with Deeg regarding risks and benefits. After treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor, Kohary’s prostate cancer is undetectable — and his MDS is looking good, too.
Deeg first arrived at Fred Hutch in 1976. His 42 years of experience have made him an outstanding physician, Nelson said.
“He has so much to teach. It’s not just about smarts, it’s what experience teaches you. He treats everyone as unique,” he said. “Joachim is good at reading patients and their priorities.”
Dr. Bart Scott, director of Hematology and Hematological Malignances at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, who trained under Deeg, lauded his role as scientist, mentor, and clinician.
His contributions to the treatment and understanding of MDS are similarly impressive: When Scott printed out the list of Deeg’s 863 peer-reviewed studies, it numbered 63 pages. Scott, who is also on the Hutch’s clinical research faculty, highlighted just a few: Developing novel treatments for acute graft-vs.-host disease. Creating an animal model of MDS that has allowed researchers worldwide to test new treatments. Establishing bone marrow transplantation from healthy donors as a curative treatment for MDS and myeloproliferative neoplasms, or MPN.
The number of physician-researchers Deeg has mentored runs to 49, Scott said. Many mentees lead bone marrow transplant centers and MDS and MPN research programs around the world. Deeg also established the MDS/MPN clinical trial group at the Hutch, as well as a biorepository with more than 1,000 unique tissue samples from patients with MDS and MPN, which will continue paying research dividends for years to come.
“You get a sense of the international dispersion of his expertise,” said Gilliland, who credits Deeg with teaching him about “hard-core” research. “That’s one of the most important things about the Hutch: We invent here, but we try to spread it across the entire world. And he’s been so instrumental in being able to do that. … Thank you, Miklos and Natalia, for your recognition of that.”
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at email@example.com.