The first meeting between Jose Carreras and the young physician who would have a key role in the life-saving treatment for his rare form of leukemia turned out to be a bonding moment for the opera singer and a fan “blown away” at being his doctor.
“I was a fellow at The Hutch (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle), working with Dr. (Donnall) Thomas when they told me a singer from West Side Story, the opera, was coming in for a transplant and since I was from New York, they thought I might know him,” recalls Dr. James Bianco.
“Since I had been a season ticket holder at the Met, I immediately identified him and was blown away that I was going to have the privilege of being his doc,” said Bianco, now CEO of Cell Therapeutics (CTI). “When he met me he observed ‘you’re not from here, you dress different!’ When I told him I saw him at the Met and I loved his performance of Carmen, we hit it off.”
That first meeting a quarter century ago may well be on the minds of both Bianco and Carreras when the famed creator of “The Three Tenors” will be on hand in Seattle next Tuesday for a special event at Benaroya Hall.
The event, billed as “A celebration of life and friendship,” will celebrate both the 25th anniversary of Carrera’s victory over cancer and the 90th birthday of Dottie Thomas, wife of the Nobel-prize-winning doctor who pioneered the leukemia treatment that saved him.
The “private performance” recital for about 500 invitees who will pay $250 each to support a research fellowship benefiting the Jose Carreras Research Institute and The Hutch is being sponsored by Bianco’s company, which is focused on development of new cancer-fighting therapies.
“When I learned Dottie was turning 90 on September 18th, coupled with the fact that September, 1987, was the month I admitted Jose to the Hutch for his transplant, there was no better tribute to both of these milestones than to bring Jose back to the U.S. for a celebration,” Bianco said.
Bianco was a young associate at The Hutch who had been recruited by Thomas to come to Seattle from New York City as Thomas assembled a team to assist with his new bone marrow transplantation process that would win him a Nobel Prize in 1990.
I asked Bianco, who was the “fellow” in charge of Carreras’ medical care, day and night, under an attending physician who provided supervisory oversight, to share some details of Carreras’ treatment.
He recalled that the singer was assigned to an “an experimental treatment protocol” in which he would have to have his own bone marrow treated to remove leukemia cells because there was no match with the marrow of his siblings.
“His leukemia was usually uniformly fatal in adults,” Bianco noted. “He would receive the highest amount of total body irradiation and chemo that the center ever utilized.”
Bianco explained that there was concern over whether Carerras’ body would be so damaged by the extreme radiation that his stored bone marrow wouldn’t be able to regrow and make normal blood cells. So because of that concern, as well as that the high radiation levels would be potentially fatal to his lungs, liver and GI tract, he was put in an ultra-clean bubble environment.
Carreras spent approximately 60 days in that isolation environment from start of transplant until his bone marrow recovered normal blood cell-making ability and was infection free.
“That day for Jose was on December 23rd 1987,” Bianco said. “I remember because that day I didn’t gown up but rather just walked into his isolation room and he freaked out that I wasn’t ‘clean’”
“I opened the barrier to the room and told him he was well enough to go out to his apartment with his family,” Bianco recalled. “It was a really memorable and special moment for me and for him. That was a really special Christmas.”
It was three years later that Carreras went on to world fame when he convinced fellow Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Italian singer Luciano Pavarotti to perform as “The Three Tenors,” with the first event at the Roman Colosseum. The performance resulted in the best-selling classical CD in history, some 16 million copies. Mass concerts by the three continued for more than a decade.
After he was discharged to return home from Seattle, Carreras established the Jose Carreras Leukemia Research Foundation and invited Bianco to be a board member.
“I have participated on the board ever since,” Bianco said. And as part of their continuing friendship, when CTI had its 20th anniversary last year, Carerras did a video tribute to the company’s research and efforts to improve cancer treatment.
Donnall Thomas is now frail and “not doing well,” according to Bianco, who describes his mentor as “inspiring, a pioneer, sweet, honest, compassionate visionary who touched the lives of everyone he trained and treated worldwide.”