Nobel laureate, bone-marrow transplant innovator Dr. E. Donnall Thomas dies

Nobel Prize winner and medical pioneer E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., died Saturday at the age of 92.

Thomas won the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his work in bone-marrow transplantation to cure leukemias and other blood cancers.

In 1974, Thomas became the first director of medical oncology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He later became associate director and then director of the Center’s Clinical Research Division. He stepped down from that position at age 70 in 1990 and officially retired in 2002.

Thomas, along with his wife and research partner, Dottie, and a team of fellow researchers pursued transplantation throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite doubts by many prominent physicians of the day.

"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,” said Larry Corey, M.D., president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "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 said in a statement released by the center.

Thomas' groundbreaking work is viewed as one of the greatest success stories in cancer treatment. Bone marrow transplantation and its sister therapy, blood stem cell transplantation, have had worldwide impact, boosting survival rates from nearly zero to up to 90 percent for some blood cancers, the center said. This year, approximately 60,000 transplants will be performed worldwide.

Thomas came to Seattle in 1963 to be the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. His team worked to cure leukemia and other cancers of the blood 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 goal was to establish a fully functioning and cancer-free blood and immune system, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said.

“We moved to Seattle … at a time when it seemed that marrow transplantation would never be successful,” Thomas said in a 2000 interview. “So we focused our attention on laboratory experiments.” After moving to Seattle, Thomas and his colleagues worked almost exclusively in the laboratory well into 1967, postponing work on patients until treatment complications could be resolved.

It took almost 20 years after Thomas’s seminal paper on bone-marrow transplantation was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in September 1957 for the procedure to become an accepted therapy. During that time most medical professionals dismissed the idea.

“In the 1960s in particular and even into the 1970s, there were very responsible physicians who said this would never work,” Thomas said. “Some suggested it shouldn’t go on as an experimental thing.”

The early success was enough to convince Seattle surgeon William Hutchinson, M.D., to support Thomas and his team. In 1972, ground broke for the construction of the original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center building in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, and its doors opened in 1975.

Today, bone marrow transplants are a proven success for treating leukemia and other cancers as well as blood disorders such as aplastic anemia, the center said.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Dottie, two sons and a daughter.