Remembering transplant immunologist Dr. John Hansen

Physician-scientist defined rules for matching bone marrow transplant donors and patients, was a founding father of volunteer donor registries
black and white photo of Don Thomas and John Hansen sitting together at a table
Fred Hutch transplant immunologist Dr. John Hansen (right) with Hutch bone marrow transplant pioneer Dr. Don Thomas in 1989. Photo: Fred Hutch file

Dr. John Hansen of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who made pivotal contributions to the field of transplantation immunology, died of pancreatic cancer July 31 at home with family. The emeritus faculty member was 76.

Over his five-decade career, Hansen demonstrated how genetic variation in the immune system contributes to the success or failure of a bone marrow transplant, and he defined fundamental immunological rules for finding suitable donors for each patient in need of a transplant. He founded repositories of patient samples and data that have become crucial research resources, continuing to yield new insights into the immune system and improvements for transplant patients.

Hansen also played a key role in the worldwide establishment of registries of potential bone marrow or blood stem cell donors. Thanks to his early involvement and longtime leadership in this field, tens of millions of people are now listed in these registries, and at least 1.3 million transplants of blood-forming stem cells or bone marrow have been performed worldwide. The fact that most of these transplants are now between unrelated individuals is a testament to his foundational discoveries in transplantation immunology, colleagues say.

“The contributions that John made in the field of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation were extraordinary,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland. “His work extended transplantation on a global scale. He invigorated this idea that we all need to support each other as a community — and that we all need to come together to think about ways to treat patients who have cancers that can be cured with bone marrow transplantation. Measured in the number of human lives saved, few physician-scientists have had the impact that he had during his lifetime and will continue to have.”

“John was a scientific pioneer and a true gentleman — a powerful combination,” said Dr. Nancy Davidson, senior vice president and director of the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and holder of its Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Collaborative Research, president and director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and head of the Division of Medical Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Countless patients and families benefited from his expertise and his compassion. I am grateful for his legacy to the field of stem cell transplantation and to Fred Hutch.”

Hansen is survived by his wife, Suzanne, and adult children Eric Hansen and family, Peter Hansen and family, Connie Jenson and family, and Nicholas Hansen. He is preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Ann Wilson Hansen, and parents Ruth and Alfred Hansen.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 8501 SE 40th St., Mercer Island, Washington, 98040. A reception will follow immediately at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, 1836 72nd Ave. SE, Mercer Island, Washington, 98040.

Memorial gifts can be made to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Photo of John Hansen standing and clasping his hands in an auditorium full of people standing and clapping. Next to John stands a woman looking at him and smiling.
Dr. John Hansen, left, with his wife Suzanne, receives a standing ovation after a scientific symposium named in his honor, held in Fred Hutch's Pelton Auditorium on July 13, 2018. At the Hansen Symposium, speakers from the Hutch and beyond honored Hansen’s past contributions, presented the results of their latest science building off his work, and offered heartfelt personal tributes to Hansen. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Hansen’s contributions to bone marrow transplantation and immunology

A native of Minneapolis, Hansen received his bachelor’s in biology from the University of Minnesota followed by a medical doctorate from Stanford University. He trained with some of the leading lights of immunology, including heart-transplant trailblazer Dr. Norman Shumway of Stanford and bone marrow transplant pioneer Dr. Robert Good of the University of Minnesota.

Hansen came to Fred Hutch in 1977, not long after the Hutch opened its doors. When Hansen arrived in Seattle, bone marrow transplant was a radical, experimental, last-ditch treatment for leukemias and other blood diseases. The Hutch team, led by transplantation pioneer Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who went on to receive a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1990, was on the vanguard of research to make it a viable therapy.

To Hansen, the potential for transplantation to save lives from then-uncurable illnesses filled him with an exhilaration that sometimes kept him up at night, he said in a 2018 interview for a Fred Hutch feature profile.

“It was so novel. And so exciting in terms of what it represented in terms of big breakthroughs,” Hansen said.

To say that it’s a tricky feat to swap out a patient’s diseased blood and immune system for a healthy one from a different person would be an understatement: The human immune system evolved over eons to detect with uncanny accuracy the difference between self and invader. Thus, the Hutch’s early transplant team had to surmount formidable immunological challenges to make the procedure the standard of care it is today.

Hansen played a lead role in solving those puzzles.

“The contributions that John made in the field of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation were extraordinary."

— Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch

From his arrival at the Hutch until his retirement last summer, Hansen headed the Hutch transplant program’s clinical tissue-typing laboratory. His clinical and laboratory-based research helped fill in the missing pieces of the complicated picture of tissue type — the immunological system also called “HLA,” for human leukocyte antigen, which underlies the body’s ability to tell its own cells from others’ — and other immunological variants in the genetic code. His research illuminated the aspects of these complex systems that must match in transplantation, and which can safely be mismatched if a fully matched donor cannot be found.

Under Hansen’s leadership, the typing lab developed tests, based on successive rounds of research and new technologies, to help transplant teams know whether a particular patient had a well-matched marrow donor. Each wave of tests was widely adopted and built upon by teams at other institutions. His own Hutch laboratory eventually transformed into Fred Hutch’s Research Cell Bank, an internationally relied-upon research resource.

Hansen’s typing lab also made possible the first-known transplant for leukemia using an unrelated donor: that of 10-year-old Laura Graves, in 1979. That procedure, conducted by Hansen and Fred Hutch teammates, fueled the Graves family’s dedicated advocacy for the U.S. to establish a National Marrow Donor Program, which came to fruition in 1986. Hansen was on the three-person team tasked with planning and setting up the NMDP’s donor registry, which was intended to facilitate the kind of match between strangers that made Graves’ transplant possible. He served on the NMDP’s board of directors from 1988–2004 and also played a lead role in the program’s establishment of its repository of paired samples from transplant patients and donors.

“Every patient that I’ve known, every patient I’ve helped … every one of them is a precious experience, a real sense of accomplishment. But getting the national registry started was also like that,” Hansen said last year.

Mentorship, leadership and awards

He extended transplantation’s frontiers by devoting time to research collaborations and training as well.

“John welcomed junior investigators from within our transplant program and from other centers to join him in his studies,” said Dr. Paul Martin, a Fred Hutch colleague who worked with Hansen for 40 years. Over the years, Hansen mentored many trainees who went on to become leaders in transplantation and cancer immunotherapy, including the founders of other institutions’ transplant programs — a “veritable United Nations legacy of investigators who remember him fondly with great admiration,” Martin said.  

Besides his longtime role in the NMDP, Hansen held numerous leadership positions in national professional organizations for transplantation and immunology. At Fred Hutch, he served for two years as the senior vice president and director of the Clinical Research Division. For 25 years, he headed the Hutch’s Human Immunogenetics Program, and he was medical director of the clinical immunogenetics laboratory at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Hutch’s clinical care partner, for 18 years. He was also an attending physician at SCCA and UW Medical Center.

Hansen’s many honors and awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (2002), the E. Donnall Thomas Lecture from the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (2008) and the American College of Physicians’ Award for Outstanding Work in Science as Related to Medicine (2017).

Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.

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