Jean Sanders, MD, Reflects on Her Passion for BMT and Cellular Therapy

While growing up in a farm outside of a small, rural town of Afton, Iowa in the late 1940s and 1950s, Jean Sanders never expected to be a doctor.

She was always interested in math and science, but it wasn’t until she was 16 she knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. It was the year her beloved six-year-old cousin, Rita, developed leukemia and died.

“I told my mother that someday I was going to do something about that,” she said. “So, in fact, that’s exactly where my career went.”

For more than 40 years, Sanders has been active in clinical hematopoietic cell transplantation specializing in pediatric care. Despite retiring from clinical service at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in 2012, she’s remained active there as a member of the Fred Hutch Institutional Review Board.   Her career has touched thousands of young lives and has taken her to Thailand and back.

“I feel like I accomplished something with my life,” she said. “It’s nice to know you’ve made a difference.”

Small Town Beginnings

Sanders grew up on a relatively large farm near Afton, located in Southern Iowa. In her teenage years, the death of her cousin Rita had a profound impact on Sanders. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was very little anyone could do for leukemia patients other than prednisone, and when that did not work any longer, offer end-of-life care. For Sanders, it was hard to watch, but it inspired her to pursue medicine, specifically pediatric oncology.

She obtained a bachelor of arts from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, before going to the University of Iowa College of Medicine for her MD. She was one of five women out of her 125-person class. It was unusual for women to seriously study medicine in the 1960s.

“Some people wondered why we were there,” she said of her female cohort. “The kinds of questions I was asked in my medical school interview would not be acceptable to ask now days.”

A Burgeoning Career

Sanders’ career had a unique start. In 1969 during her senior year of medical school, she moved with her husband to Oakland, Calif.  After completing her degree as a visiting senor medical student at the University of California-San Francisco, she and her husband moved to Thailand as part of his military service during the Vietnam War. Sanders approached the dean of UCSF about her upcoming move, and he connected her with a unique opportunity: taking a post-graduate tropical medicine course at the Mihadol University School of Tropical Medicine in Bangkok.

Her class was made up of 24 physicians, 22 from countries in Southeast Asia, and a Swedish woman physician living in the country with her diplomat husband. Classes were all taught in English. The purpose was to improve physician understanding of various tropical diseases, how to diagnose and treat them as well as to prevent them.  While there, she even got to meet the King of Thailand.

“It was the 10th anniversary of the tropical medicine school, and the King of Thailand came to visit the school and meet all of the students.  We were given strict instructions as to what to wear and how to greet the king,” Sanders recalled. “The students from the various countries wore their national dress, so I found some appropriate material and, using a Vogue dress pattern I had, made dress to wear when meeting the King.  It was a delightful year—I learned a lot.”

Upon her return to the U.S., she went to Oakland Children’s Hospital for training in pediatrics and then to Stanford for a pediatric oncology fellowship where she learned of Dr. E. Donnall Thomas’ work in Seattle with bone marrow transplant. She did a three-month elective in marrow transplantation in Seattle with Thomas in 1975 before he offered her a job. She was the only woman on the transplant team—and the only member working in pediatrics—and she played an integral part of Thomas’ clinical research.

When she came to Seattle, there had been less than 100 allogenic transplants between matched siblings. Through Thomas’ and Fred Hutch teams’ work, significant strides were made in understanding bone marrow transplantation.

“We learned about which patients to transplant and performed clinical research studies in infection prevention and graft-versus-host disease prevention.  In those early days, most all leukemia patients were ‘end stage’ because the procedure was considered highly experimental—and the medical community at the time thought we were a little nuts,” Sanders said. “The publication that began to turn things around was the 100 patients paper.”

In 1977, Thomas was the lead author on “One hundred patients with acute leukemia treated by chemotherapy, total body irradiation, and allogeneic marrow transplantation,” in Blood. Sanders is listed as a co-author.

“When that paper was published, that made a big difference in how people thought about transplantation,” Sanders said.

Reflecting on Giving Back

Sanders spent the rest of her career at Fred Hutch working side-by-side with some of the greatest minds in transplant. Since her retirement in 2012, she is a member emeritus in the division of clinical research at the Center, and has served on a variety of professional organizations, including as the editor of ASTCT’s eNews.

Along with her many honors—including her Lifetime Achievement Award from Fred Hutch—she acts as a consultant for the Foundation for Accreditation of Cellular Therapy and volunteers her time to many charitable organizations, including making quilts for children who’ve lost family members to cancer.

One part that has been extremely important to her, though, is working with children. Since her early days in the field, she’s been dedicated to understanding how cellular transplantation affects children and helping them cope through some of the toughest times. Seeing the survivors grow into adults is something that brings her a lot of joy.

“We have reunions in Seattle—most of the big transplant centers do,” she said. “Because we’ve transplanted so many, the reunions are limited to those who are surviving five or more years. I have children who were transplanted that have grown up to be lawyers, school teachers, doctors; People living their lives and making contributions and I think, ‘Gee, that’s pretty neat.’”