May 30, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

A tribute to Nobel Laureate E. Donnall Thomas, a true stem cell pioneer

E. Donnall ThomasI was fortunate enough to do my postdoctoral studies at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (aka “The Hutch”) in Seattle. I was a postdoc for more years than I’d like to admit, but it was a wonderful experience.

The Hutch is the kind of place where you can imagine making the impossible become possible in the biomedical sciences and it is not a daydream.

No one better exemplified that than E. Donnall Thomas, who passed away this weekend.

Eight years before I came to The Hutch, Thomas won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 for his pioneering work on bone marrow transplantation, but when I arrived there in 1998 he was still having a big impact.

He was the kind of person who is not just an inspiration, but in practical terms changes the world and saves thousands of people’s lives. To quote the NY Times article:

His team carried out its first transplant using a matched sibling donor for a patient with leukemia in 1969. Eight years later, the team performed the first matched transplant from an unrelated donor, a success that led to the formation of a national registry that now includes more than 11 million marrow donors.

Thomas did revolutionary work on bone marrow transplantation starting in the 1950s and 1960s.

I only met Thomas once at some kind of reception given in his honor. He seemed a kind soul, who was more interested in science and medicine than in a bunch of people fussing over him.

You should read his autobiography on the Nobel Prize website. It’s really interesting. He led a remarkable life notable for the power of hard work, persistence, and creativity paying off for society from someone who was born into modest beginnings in the Depression. I like how Dr. Thomas starts the story not with himself but with his father. Then I am also impressed how he gives credit to so many other people (more than a dozen by my count) along the way in this short autobiography including his wife.

Of course we now know that hematopoietic stem cells are the reason that bone marrow transplantations work and these transplants continue to be the best, defining example of the power of stem cells to help patients.

An addendum at the end of his Nobel autobiography says:

Most recently he has been active in support of stem cell research, a subject that has become a politically-dominated issue. Dr. Thomas has been active in scientific groups interested in clarifying the issues for both the public and legislators. He believes that stem cell research, with appropriate oversight, should be directed by scientists, not politicians.

I think Dr. Thomas was an amazing scientist.