The Role of a Lifetime

My motivation for becoming a physician scientist was to help people within my lifetime. I like pulling together the resources to do things that matter.

I first became drawn to stem cell transplantation when I was a second year medical student at Ohio State. I heard a one hour lecture by a pioneer in the field named Peter Tutschka, who was one of the developers of stem cell transplantation at Johns Hopkins.

And I thought, right there, stem cell transplantation is what I want to do.

I was drawn to Seattle by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, where Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was developing the field of stem cell transplantation. When I arrived in 1989, Fred Hutchinson was already a mecca for stem cell research and stem cell transplantation.  Much more context can be found in an obituary that I wrote after Don’s death in 2012.

At UW I worked in the lab of George Stamatoyannopoulous and his wife, Thalia Papayannopoulou, world leaders in human genetics, which their lab approached through the study of a phenomenon known as hemoglobin switching, in which different types of globin proteins, embryonic, fetal, and adult, successively appear and disappear during the first year of human development.   This research has had especially important implications for the treatment of sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia.  The excitement and intensity of being in George and Thalia’s lab is hard to overstate, and over five years they formed me as a physician researcher.  George died in 2018 and I am forever grateful for the tremendous gift that he and Thalia gave me.

While in George and Thalia’s lab I began to focus on gene therapy, developing an approach for regulating the growth of hematopoietic cells in response to a small molecule drug.  With the discovery of human embryonic stem cells, I joined Randy Moon, Chuck Murry, Tom Reh, David Russell, and Carol Ware to submit and receive one of the first three NIH program grants for human embryonic stem cell research.   In the ensuing years Randy, Chuck and I co-founded ISCRM, forged in part by repeated car rides to Olympia from 2004 – 2006 to testify about the importance and potential of this work.   Lee Huntsman was a key advisor in ISCRM’s formation.

I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to embark on this journey with Randy and Chuck, my colleagues and close friends. Randy, the exceptionally-talented basic scientist, knew our success would be measured by our ability to translate research into treatments, and pushed tirelessly for the high throughput screening a core, now an ISCRM fixture playing a critical role in drug discovery. And Chuck was driven by his commitment to regenerating hearts, an achievement on the horizon that could shatter barriers for other life-changing lines of research.

The ISCRM community also owes a deep debt to Carol Ware, who created the Stem Cell Core Lab, where researchers from different backgrounds could learn from each other about the nuances of tapping into the power of stem cells. Carol set the tone for a culture that has become part of the Institute’s DNA. And, of course, we’re all grateful for the philanthropic funding that provided the fuel we needed to build the Institute into what is today.

Throughout my career I have been free to pursue my passion.  And being the cheerleader in chief of ISCRM has been an especially rewarding role. I’m thrilled and very proud of what ISCRM has become.