Treatment Research

Bone Marrow Transplantation: Evolution of a Cancer Cure

One Million Lives

have been touched by our pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation

Nearly 40 years after pioneering bone marrow transplantation, Fred Hutch is expanding bone marrow transplantation to treat more diseases, help more people and save more lives.


Dr. Thomas Pioneered Bone Marrow Transplantation

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Through persistence, determination and an overarching compassion for patients, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and colleagues pioneered the successful use of bone marrow transplantation. The procedure replaces stem cells damaged by chemotherapy and radiation with donated healthy cells that engraft within a patient’s bone marrow. The discovery was a cure for leukemia and other blood cancers, and earned Thomas the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Thomas and other Fred Hutch scientists would spend decades improving bone marrow transplantation to make the procedure safer and available to more patients.

Learn more about the story behind our pioneering development of bone marrow transplantation.

Transplantation Research Advances

No other research center matches Fred Hutch’s historical and current contributions to the field of bone marrow transplantation. Our scientists are committed to making transplantation safer and more widely available, and their achievements speak for themselves:

  • Cord blood transplants – Dr. Colleen Delaney pioneered a method for rapidly growing the number of cord blood stem cells after they are recovered from donors. This breakthrough can greatly increase success and survival rates for cord blood transplant recipients. Cord blood cells are often a better match for patients who cannot easily find a tissue-matched bone marrow donor, such as some ethnic minorities. Learn more about Dr. Delaney's breakthroughs in cord blood transplantation >

  • Mini-transplants for older patients – Dr. Rainer Storb pioneered the use of minimal doses of radiation to reduce side effects for older transplant patients, a breakthrough we continue to refine.

  • Pediatric transplantation – Our scientists, including Dr. Jean Sanders (retired), have contributed greatly to the field of pediatric transplantation, improving survival rates and also training dozens of pediatric oncologists.

  • Infection control – Our researchers, including Drs. Michael Boeckh and Larry Corey, have made numerous contributions to the clinical field of infection detection, prevention and control for transplant patients who have compromised immune systems.

  • Improving a cancer cure (infographic) – A 2010 study conducted by a dozen Hutchinson Center scientists showed that 200 days after transplantation, more patients were surviving than ever before thanks to a comprehensive series of breakthroughs aimed at reducing the risk of deadly complications. See our infographic below for more information on this important research.
Infographic: Bone Marrow Transplantation: Improving a Cancer Cure

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has taken a comprehensive approach to reducing the risk of life-threatening complications during bone marrow transplantation. As a result, long-term survival rates have improved by 41 percent.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Click for high-res version

Transplantation is on the Verge of Saving More Lives

As transplantation becomes a more widely used option for patients worldwide, broader challenges are being addressed. Some transplant patients, especially ethnic minorities, have significant difficulties finding matched donors. In addition, cancer relapse is an ongoing threat, and doctors cannot accurately predict which patients may suffer from a serious complication known as graft-vs.-host disease. Here is how our scientists are pursuing innovative research to address these challenges:

Dr. Ollie Press

Replacing transplantation with T-cells — Dr. Ollie Press is investigating ways to modify a patient’s own disease fighting T-cells to target proteins on the surface of tumor cells. Press is refining the approach to create a more powerful and lasting T-cell therapy, which could replace transplantation as a therapy for follicular and mantle cell lymphoma.

Dr. Effie Petersdorf

Predicting graft-vs.-host diseae — Dr. Effie Petersdorf is looking at DNA to determine if patients’ bodies contain clues as to why transplanted stem cells may attack them. This complication, known as graft-vs.-host disease, is a series risk for transplant patients.

Dr. Jerry Radich

Predicting relapse and treatment outcomes — Dr. Jerry Radich is researching a “precision-medicine” approach by understanding the genetic features of each patient's own cancer, which can very greatly across individuals. This approach may predict if or when leukemias and other cancers will return, as well as the success of different therapeutic options.

Dr. George McDonald

New applications for transplantation — Dr. George McDonald is conducting a clinical trial to evaluate transplantation as a treatment for advanced Crohn’s disease. Other Fred Hutch scientists think it could cure HIV and other diseases.

Immunotherapy: Transplantation’s Legacy

“One of the major legacies of bone marrow transplantation will be the establishment of immunotherapy as a technique that will be able to cure thousands of patients of many different diseases in the future.”

Fred Appelbaum, Director Clinical research Division

Bone marrow transplantation showed for the first time the power of the body’s immune system in fighting cancer. Known as immunotherapy, several of our researchers, as well as scientists around the world, are exploring this promising field as an approach to fighting a wide variety of diseases, including several types of cancer

Dr. Ollie Press’ groundbreaking use of radiolabeled antibodies has allowed researchers to target cancer cells with radiation while sparing healthy cells. This approach has produced some of the best lymphoma cure rates in the world and is also achieving promising results in treating follicular lymphoma.

Learn more about our immunotherapy research. >