George Santos, professor emeritus of oncology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, died Jan. 21 due to complications from cancer. He was 72.
A world-renowned expert in bone marrow transplantation, Santos founded the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center’s bone marrow transplant program and served as its director from 1968 until his retirement in 1994.
Among his extensive research and clinical accomplishments was development of the regimen to prepare patients for the procedure by using the anticancer drugs busulfan and cytoxan, which quickly became the worldwide standard. His animal studies in transplantation biology continue to serve as guides in the development of new therapeutic approaches.
“As one of the first Oncology Center faculty members, George Santos played a critical role in establishing the field of oncology as a specialty,” said Martin Abeloff, director of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center. “I was privileged to have worked with him and learned from him as an oncology fellow and later as a colleague. Many of the great strides we have made today in bone marrow transplantation as therapy for cancer and other diseases can be directly traced to the early research of Dr. Santos.”
In 1960, Santos came to Hopkins as a fellow and conducted the institution’s first marrow transplantation studies in animals. He performed his first human bone marrow transplant in 1968 in the Hopkins Oncology Unit at Baltimore City Hospital, now known as Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Throughout his career at Hopkins, he was instrumental in developing what is considered today the standard-of-care in marrow transplantation. In addition to the preparative regimen, which provided an alternative to total body radiation, he was among the first to test the drug cyclosporine for the treatment of a life-threatening transplantation complication known as graft-versus-host-disease.
Other research included use of the drug 4-HC to purge a patient’s diseased marrow of cancer cells allowing them to self-donate, treatments to prevent and manage opportunistic infections in immunocompromised bone marrow transplant patients, and techniques in T-cell depletion that reduced both complications and relapses.
Recognizing the urgency of effective cancer treatments, Santos was among the first “translational” scientists to focus on rapidly moving laboratory discoveries from the bench to the bedside.
In his office, Santos kept a wall of photographs of the patients he had treated. One of his fondest memories was of attending the wedding of a patient he had cared for 15 years earlier. When he retired, Hopkins honored Santos with a reunion of more than 200 transplant patients he and his staff had treated over his career.
“A whole generation of Hopkins-trained translational scientists looked to George as their intellectual and spiritual mentor,” Richard Jones, professor of oncology and current director of the Hopkins bone marrow transplant program. “The world of biomedical science has recently embraced the concept of translational research, but George was showing the Hopkins community how to do this long before it was in vogue.”
At the 25th anniversary of the Hopkins Oncology Center, in 1998, Santos reflected on his years at Johns Hopkins: “I was privileged to witness the birth of oncology into a subspecialty. A freestanding center in a university setting was quite unique at the time. I was allowed to pursue my interests in bone marrow transplantation in a place with a strong research base in an environment where it could be transferred to the clinic. It was a wonderful opportunity for me and a wonderful opportunity for patients.”
His significant contributions to the field of oncology earned Santos many awards, including the Bristol Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research and the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation Lifetime Achievement Award. The Hopkins Oncology Center’s inpatient bone marrow transplantation unit was named in his honor at the opening of the new clinical facilities last year. In addition, he is the author of numerous articles and book chapters.
Santos received his bachelor’s degree in quantitative biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in physical biology also from MIT. He received his medical degree and completed a residency and fellowship at Johns Hopkins. He developed an interest in bone marrow transplantation while serving in the Naval Reserves at the U.S. Naval Radiologic Defense Laboratory in San Francisco from 1956 to 1958.
Following his retirement from Hopkins in 1994, Santos moved to Hilton Head, SC. He is survived by his wife Carole and four children by his first wife, Joanne . They are Susan Carey of Baltimore, George Santos of Sparks, Md., Kelly Santos of Columbus, Ohio, Amy Cauley of Jensen Beach, Fla. He is also survived by two grandchildren, Caeley and Walker.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant Patient and Family Fund.