Bone Marrow Transplant Pioneer Thomas Dead At 92
October 22, 2012

E. Donnall Thomas, Father of Bone Marrow Transplantation, Passes Away

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The doctor who is recognized as the father of bone marrow transplantation died Saturday at the age of 92.

E. Donnall Thomas, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his work, had been suffering from cardiovascular disease, according to Associated Press (AP) reporter Steven Dubois. His passing was announced by a spokesman at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

"Thomas' work is among the greatest success stories in the treatment of cancer. Bone marrow transplantation and its sister therapy, blood stem cell transplantation, have improved the survival rates for some blood cancers to upward of 90 percent from almost zero," Dubois said, adding that approximately 60,000 such transplants will be performed this year, both in the US and throughout the world.

"Can you imagine a single person being responsible for touching that many lives?" Fred Appelbaum, director of the Hutchinson Center's Clinical Research Division, told Seattle Times Business Reporter Melissa Allison. "He was the most influential person in my life, and I'm positive there are many, many scientists in the fields of leukemia, blood diseases and transplantation who would say exactly the same thing."

Thomas, whose father was a doctor, earned his medical degree from Harvard and performed the first ever human bone marrow transplant in 1956, according to Dubois. His paper detailing the procedure was published by the New England Journal of Medicine in September 1957.

Allison notes that the first transplant involved identical twins, and for many years afterwards, he dealt with skepticism from the medical community while attempting to duplicate his result on non-twin siblings.

"Thomas, along with a small team of fellow researchers, including his wife, Dottie, pursued transplantations throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite skepticism from the medical establishment," the AP reporter recalled. "They sought to cure blood cancers by destroying a patient's diseased bone marrow with near-lethal doses of radiation and chemotherapy and then rescuing the patient by transplanting healthy marrow."

"The aim was to establish a functioning and cancer-free blood and immune system," he added. "The procedure would go on to become the standard treatment for many sufferers of leukemia and lymphoma."

"At the time he first started his pursuit of bone-marrow transplantation, there was the general opinion that transplantation of any human organ would be impossible," Appelbaum said, calling Thomas "an incredibly brilliant individual" who was "modest“¦ quiet, and“¦ able to surround himself with great scientists and clinicians and nurses because he was generous with praise and would attribute successes to those individuals around him."

He joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 1963, and became the first ever director of medical oncology at the Hutchinson Center in 1974. Thomas also edited the first and second editions of the bone marrow transplant-related book "Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation."

In 1990, Thomas and Joseph E. Murray, the man who performed the first ever kidney transplant, were named the winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine. He officially retired in 2002, according to Allison.

"To the world, Don Thomas will forever be known as the father of bone marrow transplantation, but to his colleagues at Fred Hutch he will be remembered as a friend, colleague, mentor and pioneer," Larry Corey, president of the research center, said in a statement.

"The work Don Thomas did to establish marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for leukemia and other otherwise fatal diseases of the blood is responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe," he added.