Fred Hutch physician-scientist Dr. Stephanie Lee was honored at an Oct. 12 ceremony as the second recipient of the David and Patricia Giuliani/Oliver Press Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. The honor will help support Lee in perpetuity as she continues her research on blood stem cell transplantation and chronic graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD.
“Receiving the chair means so much because of Ollie,” said Lee referring to her predecessor, the late Dr. Oliver Press, at the ceremony held on the Hutch campus. “Everything he did, he did super well, he did it with heart, he did it with meaning, and it mattered. … I’m going try my best to live up to that. And a special thanks to David and to Patricia, incredibly generous people.”
The gathering of research colleagues and family members of Lee and Press, and benefactors David and Patricia Giuliani, was both joyous and bittersweet, noted Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland.
“At once we’re honoring the legacy of Ollie Press,” he said. “We’re also honoring the next recipient of the chair, Dr. Stephanie Lee. It is a wonderful occasion to celebrate the importance of [recognizing] our best and our brightest faculty.”
Gilliland, who has known Lee for 25 years, added, “It’s such a thrill for me to see her honored in this way. Her work in marrow transplantation and the contributions she’s made are extraordinary.”
Lee joined the Hutch in 2006. In addition to her GVHD research, she treats patients with leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner. She also directs the Hutch’s Long-Term Follow-Up Program, is associate director of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and is a professor of medical oncology at the University of Washington.
The Giuliani/Press Chair, funded by a gift from David and Patricia Giuliani, was first awarded to blood cancer oncologist and researcher Dr. Oliver Press in April 2016. A longtime friend of the Giuliani family, Press died of brain cancer Sept. 29, 2017. The Giulianis created the endowment to honor him in perpetuity.
Speaking at the ceremony, David Giuliani recognized the importance of new generations of researchers propagating good work.
“This is a great time and place and circumstance to look at the big picture of life,” he said. “The transition from Ollie to Stephanie reminds me of why it is we’re here, which is to make the world a better place in whatever way we can.”
Lee, who worked with Press after he took over as the interim Clinical Research Division director, acknowledged the late researcher’s contributions and legacy.
“Ollie was a true servant leader,” she said in an earlier interview. “I am very grateful to be inheriting his chair, but honestly, it is also a little daunting to live up to the responsibility. He had high standards for science, clinical care, citizenship, mentoring and administration. I am very thankful that I was able to get to know him as well as I did. I will always view him as a role model and hope I can achieve some of his success.”
Lee’s research focuses on chronic GVHD, a complication after blood stem cell and bone marrow transplants from healthy donors that can cause debilitating and maddeningly diverse symptoms, from painful dry eye and bark-like scarring of the skin to a gradual and irreversible loss of lung function. In severe cases, uncontrolled GVHD can be fatal.
“We are trying to understand what causes chronic GVHD so we can prevent it,” she said. “If we can’t prevent it, then we want more effective and less toxic treatments.”
Lee said she intends to use the first year of funding from the endowed chair to support the testing of blood samples collected from hundreds of patients to delve deeper into what drives — and what can stop — the condition.
“We want to see if we can figure out who is likely to respond to which treatments,” she said. “Right now, we have to just try one treatment after another and see what works. I hope to discover why some people respond and others don’t. Not only would this be enormously beneficial to patients who have to receive treatment now but this information might also help us develop new treatments to target exactly what is going wrong in chronic GVHD without globally suppressing the immune system.”
Lee’s research into GVHD, and her leadership of the National Institutes of Health–funded research network that focuses on it, the Chronic GVHD Consortium, has helped spread awareness and understanding of the common complication and the treatments that can help with its many manifestations. The condition currently impacts close to four in 10 transplant recipients. Fred Hutch is the coordinating center for the consortium; Lee is its principal investigator.
Lee reflected on the Giulianis’ longtime support of Fred Hutch, Press’ research and, now, her own.
“This chair exists because of the generosity of the Giulianis,” she said. “As I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them a little bit, I’ve also learned about their career paths from modest beginnings to a place where they can generously support cancer research. David and Patricia are wonderful people whose values I really respect: family and health, innovation and excellence. Knowing them personally adds another entire dimension to the honor of holding this chair.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.