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How a Phone Call Helped Shape the Field of Bone Marrow Transplant

By February 4, 2019No Comments

It was August 1972, and Dr. George McDonald was mystified.

Just two months into his fellowship, the young physician was fielding consultation requests for patients with gastrointestinal and liver problems. But the phone call from Dr. Don Thomas was different. The future Nobel Prize winner, whom he’d never met, had mentioned bone marrow transplantation and a sick patient and something called “graft-vs.-host disease.” Could McDonald come do a consult?

Of course, he replied. Then he hung up the phone.

“I had no clue what he was talking about,” McDonald recalled.

He raced to the library to consult the massive Index Medicus — “the paper-based Google of its day” — and looked up GVHD and bone marrow transplantation. It contained virtually nothing. And it contained even less about GVHD’s impact on the digestive system.

Today, a similar search on the modern-day Google spits out an ocean of information. That’s in no small part thanks to McDonald. Over the past 40-plus years, he has helped the field fill in the blanks he found in 1972. First as an intrigued volunteer, then on the faculty of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, McDonald has helped unravel countless mysteries surrounding GI and liver problems in patients with cancer.

His contributions to the field — and Fred Hutch — are staggering, said Executive Vice President and Deputy Director Dr. Fred Appelbaum.

“Bone marrow transplantation is in our blood, and Don Thomas’ work showed us how we could develop an idea from nothing but a concept into a therapy that would eventually cure thousands of people,” Appelbaum said. “But that took a village. George was an incredibly important part of that village. Without him, we might not have gotten to where we are.”