A Legacy of Mentorship

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) will honor the late Oliver (“Ollie”) W. Press, MD, PhD, with a 2017 Mentor Award at the 59th ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, for his tireless, outstanding commitment to the training and development of early-career hematologists. Dr. Press, a lymphoma physician-scientist best known for his contributions to the development of radioimmunotherapy, died September 29, 2017, from complications of glioma. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Nancy, and his two children.

At the time of his death, he held the first Giuliani/Press Endowed Chair for Cancer Research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) and maintained a joint faculty appointment as professor of medicine and adjunct professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Dr. Press also was an active member of ASH, serving as an associate editor of Blood and on multiple committees, including the Program Committee and the Scientific Subcommittee on Lymphocytic Biology. His other leadership roles included chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Lymphoma Research Foundation and co-chair of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Lymphoma Steering Committee.

Oliver W. Press, MD, PhD
Oliver W. Press, MD, PhD

He mentored more than 70 individuals since the 1980s, including undergraduates, medical students, PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows. His dedication to mentorship has been recognized with an award named in his honor, the Oliver W. Press Distinguished MSTP Alumnus Award, which acknowledges a graduate of the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program. He also received the Department of Medicine Mentorship Award from the University of Washington.

An impressive number of his former trainees have received career-development grants; he has been the primary mentor to nine recipients of K-series career-development awards from the National Institutes of Health. Many have gone on to become leaders in academic medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Press was a dedicated clinician and prolific translational researcher, his work spanning the research spectrum from basic science to large-scale clinical trials. Clinical trials he led combining radioimmunotherapy and blood stem cell transplant have demonstrated some of the best long-term outcomes in certain blood cancers.

He also was a pioneer in the use of monoclonal antibodies to target radionuclides to tumors. Recently, he and his mentee Brian G. Till, MD, developed a genetically engineered immune-cell therapy targeting CD20, which is launching its first-in-human trial for patients with non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

Dr. Press served as associate director of the University of Washington Medical Scientist Training Program from 1991 to 2006 and interacted with more than 100 students during that period, including Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels, MD, PhD, medical director at Seattle Genetics, clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, and affiliate investigator at FHCRC. Dr. Palanca-Wessels met Dr. Press in her first year as an MD/PhD student at the University of Washington, and she recalls his unassuming demeanor and straightforward communication style, as well as his engaging leukemia-lymphoma case conferences – commonly referred to as “Ollie rounds.” Eventually becoming a member of his research group at FHCRC during her hematology fellowship, Dr. Palanca-Wessels credited his selfless support for shaping her career as a physician-scientist and her own role as a mentor: “I think that having had a great mentor has inspired me to become one myself.”

Dr. Press’s mentees uniformly cite his unparalleled generosity and dedication as having played a large role in advancing their careers. He often told them, “Your success is my success.”

Ajay K. Gopal, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and one of Dr. Press’s trainees said, “It was not uncommon for one of my colleagues around the country to [tell] me, ‘Ollie gave rounds at our center and presented some of your data,’ generously giving praise to the junior investigator when he could just as rightfully taken full credit.”

His generosity extended to his time. Steven Y. Liu, MD, a former trainee and junior faculty member at the University of Washington and FHCRC, observed the rhythms of Dr. Press’s early arrivals (“hair still wet from his routine morning swim”) and the sounds of his keyboard tapping as he worked late into the night. “For a man who did not have any extra time, he always had the energy to make more time when needed,” Dr. Liu said. Although Dr. Press ran a well-funded laboratory, mentored multiple fellows and junior faculty members, and cared for patients twice a week, he always made time for those with whom he had committed to work.

Dr. Press is also recognized for the value he placed on personal connections and professionalism. Whether attending his son’s intercollegiate soccer games or taking an annual fishing trip to Alaska with his family, Dr. Press led by example in how to balance work with the rest of his life. He also demonstrated an unwavering commitment to his patients. In October 2015, just days after surgery to remove a brain tumor, he returned to the clinic because he couldn’t imagine canceling his patients’ scheduled appointments.

Dr. Press kept six generations of fire-bellied toads in his office. Fascinated by their metamorphosis – when their tadpole tails undergo apoptosis and their gills transform into lungs – he took great care in his stewardship of the creatures. Damian J. Green, MD, associate member of FHCRC and associate professor at the University of Washington, connects that innate nurturing ability and love for creatures large and small to Dr. Press’s success as a mentor: “A transformational mentor identifies needs, has a vision to guide growth, and selflessly watches mentees flourish. Ollie transformed my life.”