Dr. E. Donnall Thomas in his Hutchinson Center lab. Credit: Susie Fitzhugh.
The NHLBI joins the rest of the scientific community in mourning the loss of a true pioneer, E. Donnall Thomas, M.D. Dr. Thomas, a hematologist who earned a Nobel Prize in 1990 for establishing bone marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for leukemia and other blood conditions, died Oct. 20 at the age of 92.
"Dr. Thomas—Don to his many friends and colleagues—brought together basic hematology, transformative animal models, and rigorous studies in humans—the ultimate example of bench to bedside and back," said Susan Shurin, M.D., deputy director of the NHLBI and a hematologist. "His work has advanced fundamental knowledge in hematopoiesis, tissue typing, and immunology from primitive understanding to routine clinical care over several decades, and he trained legions of clinicians and scientists who carry on his work."
Dr. Thomas recognized the importance of matching donors to recipients, helped determine the best way to suppress the immune system before transplantation, exploited the graft-versus-tumor effect whereby donor cells recognize and help eliminate cancer, and reduced severe reactions known as graft-versus-host disease by using the drug methotrexate—thus showing that bone marrow transplantation could be a viable treatment option for certain life-threatening diseases. His work with matched but unrelated donors also helped inspire the formation of a national marrow donor registry.
Today, bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants are performed to treat or cure blood cancers and certain immune conditions and blood diseases. They can cure severe aplastic anemia, thalassemia, and sickle cell disease in patients with well-matched donors.
"Dr. Thomas' research saved or improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people," said NHLBI Director Gary H. Gibbons, M.D. "He was at the forefront of making transplants a routine treatment for certain malignant diseases, and the paradigms he established have been applied to many non-malignant conditions as well. He opened up the field for others to explore new graft sources such as cord blood and haploidentical transplants with the hope that any individual in need, not just those with a twin or other matched sibling, can find a donor."
Building on the legacy of Dr. Thomas and others, the NHLBI supports research in bone marrow transplantation and stem cell biology, including through the Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinical Trials Network, with the goal of treating and even curing more diseases through transplantation.
Read more about the lasting impact of Dr. Thomas' work in a 1997 New England Journal of Medicine article, Hematopoietic-Cell Transplantation at 50.