E. Donnall Thomas: The Father of Bone Marrow Transplants

There was a time, in the 1950s, when leukemia and other blood cancers were pretty much a death sentence. There was a last-resort treatment: a bone marrow transplant, which can make new blood cells to replace cancerous ones killed by cancer treatments. Back then, however, recipients of bone marrow transplants hardly ever survived for very long. In some cases, their bodies rejected the transplanted marrow. In others, the marrow itself – which contains immune system cells – would attack the patients’ lungs, kidneys and other organs. The few successes occurred when a patient received marrow from an identical twin.

E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., who died on Oct. 20 in Seattle at age 92, helped change all that. Despite criticism that marrow transplants were a dead end and that he was only further endangering patients, he persevered until he found a way to match tissue types and use drugs to suppress a recipient’s immune system. That allowed the marrow to survive and produce new blood cells. As a result, he saved tens of thousands of lives.

Thomas, who received a 1990 Nobel Prize for his achievement, may have learned some of that stubborn pioneering spirit from his father, who had journeyed with his family to Texas in the 1870s in a covered wagon. During the Great Depression, the future researcher worked his way through the University of Texas in Austin by waiting tables in a women’s dormitory dining hall. He did so well academically that he was accepted by Harvard Medical School. It was at Harvard that he first saw a child suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and he became interested in finding a way to stimulate bone marrow function to save patients with such afflictions. After a stint in the U.S. Army and post-graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked at hospitals in Boston, upstate New York and Seattle, where he spent years doing bone marrow transplants on dogs and experimenting with ways to make the transplants work.

It took more than a decade, but Thomas’ persistence eventually paid off. As the New York Times detailed in 1972, Thomas and his team at the University of Washington were able to report that four patients with aplastic anemia, a disorder that at the time was usually fatal, had survived for more than a year after receiving bone marrow transplants and no longer had any sign of the disease. Three of the four had improved enough to return to their normal lives.

It was the start of a revolution. Today, bone marrow transplants are a standard treatment for leukemia and actually can cure some inherited forms of anemia, such as sickle cell disease. The big problem is finding enough donors to meet the demand.

Here’s a short video on Thomas from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where he was a longtime faculty member.

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