Saturday, June 13, 2009

My Heroes: Dr. Don and Dottie Thomas

I travel interesting places on the Internet in my search for heroes in this month of June 2009. These next featured medical researchers, a husband and wife pair, attained such heroic heights that Dr. Thomas became a Nobel Prize winner in 1990 in the Physiology and Medicine category, which is the pinnacle in recognition of achievement. Their prize winning endeavor was the discovery of bone marrow transplants.

Since 1963, Dr. Don Thomas and his wife and research assistant Dottie spent countless hours in the lab working on the puzzle of bone marrow transplants. It began with transplants between ide
ntical twins. The twin diagnosed with leukemia received enough radiation and chemotherapy to destroy their own diseased bone marrow. Then they received a bone marrow donation from their healthy twin to regrow their bone marrow and relaunch production of their own blood and blood cells. While the process was relatively straightforward between identical twins, transplants between non-twin siblings and unrelated donors proved to be much more complicated. The Thomases and their team that came together at Seattle Washington's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center by 1975 learned the key to successful transplantation: matching tissue type---called histocompatibility---between donor and recipient.

Using this discovery, the first successful non-twin sibling bone marrow transplant took place in 1968. Dr. Robert Good at the University of Minnesota Medical School performed the transplant on a 5 month old boy with a genetic immune deficiency syndrome that had contributed to the death of 11 of his male relatives. The donor was his healthy 8 year old sister. The first successful unrelated donor bone marrow transplant took place at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1977. The recipient was Laura Graves. Her father Robert went on the establish the Laura Graves Foundation in 1981, which is known today as the National Marrow Donor Program.

Now bone marrow tranplants treat 40 different diseases beyond leukemia and aplastic anemia. Don and Dottie donated the $350,000 Nobel Prize award money to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and continue to work there til this day despite being "retired". "We love what we do," Dottie Thomas says. "I can't imagine working or living any other way."

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