When Michael Linenberger, MD, retires from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center at the end of 2022, his legacy will be felt by coworkers, trainees, patients and their families long after he has left the building after his last full day.
Linenberger, a professor in the Clinical Research Division and in the Division of Hematology at University of Washington (UW) Medical School and holder of the Robert and Phyllis Henigson Endowed Chair, has been at the Fred Hutch clinic, formerly Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, since it opened in 2001.
“The most remarkable thing about Mike is that his knowledge of hematology and hematologic malignancies is encyclopedic,” said Janis Abkowitz, MD, head of the Division of Hematology, who has known Linenberger for more than 35 years. “Just as notable is what he’s contributed to education and mentorship — locally by running our fellowship program, first in hematology and then in hematology-oncology, and nationally” as co-chair of the 2005 American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting education program, chair of the ASH Committee on Educational Affairs and an incoming chair of the ASH Nominating Committee.
After arriving to Seattle in 1986 as a hematology fellow at UW, Linenberger rose to become medical director of apheresis and cellular therapy for Fred Hutch as well as for the Fred Hutch Cellular Processing Facility and the regional marrow-collection center for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), roles he has held for more than two decades. Earlier this year, he was awarded one of the highest honors in the field of apheresis, the Presidential Award from the American Society of Apheresis, for his career-long contributions.
The honor recognizes that “one can make a huge impact by being a hard-working ‘foot soldier’ in the ongoing efforts to improve donor safety, patient care and outcomes, evidence-based practice and education/training,” said Linenberger at the time.
His considerable leadership experience aside, he’s quick to add even now, “I’ve always felt comfortable being not the general but the foot soldier. The big advances I’ve been part of at Fred Hutch have been in support of my colleagues who were making the discoveries at the cutting edge.”
Apheresis is a procedure to remove specific cell types from blood. As medical director of apheresis and cellular therapy, Linenberger set policies and procedures to ensure the safe collection of stem cells and other cellular material for transplantation, as he oversaw day-to-day management of the service and supervised the staff.
The Cellular Processing Facility provides support and technical expertise for procuring, characterizing and manufacturing cell-based products to treat both malignant and non-malignant diseases, such as the modified immune cells used in CAR T-cell therapy.
At marrow-collection centers, specially trained providers harvest marrow cells from volunteers who donate either for a relative or, in the case of NMDP donors, anonymously for an unrelated patient for whom a suitably matched relative was not identified.
Linenberger has played a major role in the development of evidence-based guidelines and best practices for the safe, efficient and effective use of apheresis in the clinic. He has directed and participated in multiple studies that investigate donor safety and adverse events related to stem cell infusions. His other research interests include using therapeutic apheresis to address graft-versus-host disease.
For him, one recent highlight of his research career is participating in the RDSafe clinical trial, a multicenter related-donor safety study for which Fred Hutch was a major recruiter and enroller. While NMDP has done high-quality studies on unrelated donors, he said, RDSafe helped fill gaps in knowledge and data about toxicity, tolerance and safety for children and adults of all ages who donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells to a relative.
“That study has given us tons of great information,” said Linenberger, particularly about pediatric donors and related donors over age 60. “Research has definitely been a rewarding aspect of my time here, especially research of a collaborative nature across multiple sites, like RDSafe, because you can generate such reliable data.”
When Fred Hutch (then Seattle Cancer Care Alliance) opened its South Lake Union Clinic in 2001, Linenberger joined as the first UW hematologist to be home-based there. In the years since, he has seen patients with a range of blood cancers and noncancerous blood disorders. As the organization developed specialized, disease-focused teams for conditions like multiple myeloma, lymphoma or leukemia, general hematologists like Linenberger have focused more on “classical” hematologic disorders, such as thrombosis or bleeding, that can affect an array of patients.
True partnership with a patient, based on good communication, has always been at the heart of his approach to optimal clinical care. “I can’t fully meet a patient’s needs without first hearing their story,” he said. It’s essential, to understand how a patient’s condition is affecting their life, how they and their caregivers are coping, what doubts keep them up at night and what they want to get out of treatment. In some cases, the stories he’s become part of have been unfolding for decades. Linenberger’s weekly clinics include patients he’s been seeing for more than 25 years.
“Part of what’s been wonderful about being in an academic environment like this is that we can offer hope to patients who have not found hope or relief elsewhere,” said Linenberger. “We can provide reassurance that we are doing everything possible, including on the supportive care side in those cases when we cannot cure their disease.”
Since 2011, Linenberger has led the UW Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program that brought him to the Puget Sound area in the first place.
“Mike is fantastic with fellows and other trainees, very attentive to everyone. He’s known for his absolute commitment to mentorship and education and for his understanding of the complexities of career development, including the importance of wellness and mindfulness as one’s career advances,” said Abkowitz. “I hope he knows how appreciated he is. He’s such a modest guy that I’m not sure he recognizes this.”
As an emeritus professor, Linenberger will continue to contribute to teaching and the fellowship program. He also hopes to revive and contribute to the Art of Medicine retreat for hematology-oncology fellows, which he has organized and co-chaired since 2015. It was paused during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m definitely looking forward to having more quiet time,” says Linenberger, who’ll hand off his medical director duties and no longer see patients in the clinic or hospital. Even so, this devoted collaborator may yearn at times for the daily infusion of energy he said he’s enjoyed while working at Fred Hutch.
“What I’ll miss most is the people, across all levels of the organization — the fellows, trainees, students, nurses, specialists and technologists in apheresis and cellular therapy, clinical colleagues, administrators and many more. I’m going to miss those people in part because those people do such amazing things themselves and are so passionate about what they do. I will miss the solidarity and the sense of community of all being focused on the same missions of clinical work, teaching and research.”
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