For more than five decades, Dr. Thomas Waldmann has performed cutting-edge science at the National Institutes of Health, resulting in great advances in treatment for patients with multiple sclerosis, various types of cancer and AIDS.
Described by his peers as a “renaissance scientist,” Waldmann’s work extends from the study of the immune system to innovative clinical trials of immunotherapeutic agents, which help your immune system perform better. Cancer immunotherapy, for example, helps your body reject and destroy tumors.
“Tom is an icon—he’s dedicated to making science discoveries and moving them to the clinic where they can benefit people,” said Waldmann’s NIH colleague, Dr. Robert Wiltrout. “People like Tom are extremely rare.”
Waldmann’s seminal research has led to cutting-edge discoveries, including disorders of the elements that underlie leukemia and autoimmune diseases, when the body attacks its own cells. Most significantly, Waldmann has created new treatments for previously fatal forms of leukemia and lymphoma and for multiple sclerosis.
“He has contributed to actually curing people,” said Wiltrout. “Some of his discoveries have implications way beyond cancer. There are many things that come out of the science of what he does.”
To that point, Waldmann has also been a creative pioneer in the field of cytokines—the molecules that control human immune responses—and developed the groundbreaking treatment Zenapax, which has since been associated with complete remission in over 60 percent of patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma that otherwise did not respond to any treatment.
Zenapax has also contributed to reducing the body’s rejection of renal transplants, a discovery that majorly impacts the survival rate of patients. He also found Zenapax therapy useful against autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, where he and his coworkers achieved a 78 percent reduction in new brain lesions.
Over the past decade, Waldmann also co-discovered the cytokine IL-15, which represents a major advance in the prevention and treatment of cancer and AIDS.
“Carrying out clinical studies is a real challenge and it has become more so in the past years,” said Dr. Stephen Katz, director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “The challenge to get the product to meet quality control standards is extremely hard, but Tom has been unwavering in his commitment to doing so. He did it all himself, he went to all the meetings himself and made sure it got done. He paved the way for others.”
In 1955, Waldmann came to NIH after graduating from Harvard Medical School—and he never left. “I thought I was going to be here for two years, but I became so excited with the opportunities to do research and the ability to develop our own drugs and produce these in a way that can be administered to people and be able to do my own clinical trials to treat patients,” said Waldmann. “It was not matched, not in industry, not in academia.”
His colleagues agree. “NIH is an extraordinarily exciting place,” said Dr. Nussenblatt. “Tom is so creative and he needed an environment where ideas, enthusiasm, idealism, interaction is the currency—that’s NIH.”
Like many successful federal employees, Dr. Waldmann could have chosen to go into the private sector, but his dedication to public science kept him at NIH.
“He has chosen to stay in public service because he is a man who is committed to taking science to the betterment of humanity and there is no better place to do that than NIH,” said Stephen Katz.
Dr. Waldmann adds, “One could be a successful scientist on the outside, but it would be very difficult to do what we do outside of government.”