In Memoriam: Dr. E. Donnall Thomas
Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine for perfecting bone marrow transplantation, died October 20 in Seattle at the age of 92. The procedure is widely credited with saving the lives of many thousands of people with leukemia and other blood diseases.
When Dr. Thomas began his research in the 1950s, people with leukemia and other blood cancers had little hope of survival. Dr. Thomas; his wife and research partner, Dottie; and a small team of fellow researchers studied transplantation despite skepticism among many prominent physicians of the day.
In leukemia, blood stem cells that reside in the bone marrow turn cancerous. Chemotherapy treatments available in the 1950s could kill the cancerous cells but left patients without healthy stem cells to make new blood cells and rarely led to remission. Doctors could introduce new bone marrow from a donor, but in many cases the patient's body would reject the foreign marrow or the donor cells would attack the patient's own organs, a condition known as graft-versus-host disease.
In 1956, hoping to avoid such complications, Dr. Thomas conducted the first bone marrow transplant in a leukemia patient using donor cells from the patient's identical twin. And in September 1957, he published his seminal paper on bone marrow transplantation in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A major breakthrough came when Dr. Thomas showed that comprehensive human leukocyte antigen matching could make transplants viable for many more people, including those who are not closely related. He also found ways to counteract the graft-versus-host reaction and render bone marrow transplants safer.
Today, bone marrow transplants are standard treatment for leukemia. The procedure is also used to treat lymphoma, multiple myeloma, a number of autoimmune diseases, aplastic anemia, and myelofibrosis.
Dr. Thomas received his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating from the Harvard School of Medicine in 1946, he served for 2 years in the U.S. Army. In 1963, Dr. Thomas moved to Seattle to become the first chief of the oncology division at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In 1974, he became the first director of medical oncology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He stepped down as director of the clinical research division in 1990 and retired in 2002.