UW Health Bone Marrow Transplant Pioneer Dies at 77

Madison, Wisconsin - Dr. Fritz Bach, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and physician who pioneered the use of bone-marrow transplants, died Sunday at the age of 77.

Bach was an assistant professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 when he devised a lab test that could identify individuals who were "matched" for genes that control organ transplantation.


He was convinced that a bone marrow transplant could boost the immune system and restore normal marrow function for individuals with a variety of life-threatening diseases, provided that the right "matched" individual was picked as the marrow donor.

In 1968, a two-year-old boy diagnosed with Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, a deadly disease that causes unstoppable internal bleeding, was the first to receive a bone-marrow transplant. Bach's lab had determined that this patient's nine-year-old sister was a match, enabling this first procedure to proceed.

"He was bleeding constantly (from the brain and intestines) and getting transfusions," Bach said in a 2008 interview. "We were trying to repair that part of his system, so he would have a decent immune response and lead a more normal life."

Bach did the first transplant using the sister's bone marrow on August 23, 1968, but it failed to work. A second transplant was performed seven weeks later, after the boy underwent four days of medication to prevent him from rejecting the marrow. Bach said this time, the procedure worked.

"Within a couple of weeks, his blood cells were coming back," he said. "Did I know at this point it would work? No. But it was encouraging to know the donated bone marrow would be taken and settled into the boy's bone marrow. We knew it was the donor's cells after tests proved they belonged to this sister."

The boy was able to return home to New York State the day before Thanksgiving that year. Bach's research was publicized in the New York Times and a number of national magazines and medical journals.

Dr. Paul Sondel, current director of pediatric hematology/oncology at American Family Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, began working in Bach's laboratory as an undergraduate at UW in 1969.

"He was my mentor and scientific guide," he said. "Tens of thousands of lives are now saved annually by his bone-marrow transplant technique. His work really allowed the clinical field to begin."

UW Hospital now does more than 100 bone-marrow transplants a year, and virtually every major medical institution in the world has a bone-marrow transplant unit.

Sondel says that patients with certain leukemias and several other diseases that were uniformly fatal in the past now have roughly a 60 percent survival rate if they are eligible to receive a matched bone-marrow transplant.

Bach was born in Vienna, Austria in 1934. After the country was invaded by Germany, Bach and his brother escaped to England via the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took in Jewish children. Bach and his brother eventually reunited with their parents in England in 1939. They relocated to the United States in 1948.

Bach attended Harvard Medical School and served a post-doctoral fellowship at New York University before coming to UW in 1965.

He left UW in 1980 for the University of Minnesota. In 1990, he returned to Harvard Medical School as a faculty member and researcher, and remained there until his retirement in 2010.

Bach wrote more than 800 scientific articles for well-known publications including Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The most exciting part of his life was always his latest idea and how the experiment he was going to do 'next week' was going to answer it," said Sondel. "He was so enthusiastic about science and scientists, and the process of working out new ideas by talking together and really listening to new ways of doing things. For Fritz, the most important person in the world was always the one he was talking to at the moment."


Bach was married twice. He is survived by six children and four grandchildren.

Date Published: 08/17/2011

News tag(s):  paul m sondel

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