Leading Lymphoma Clinician, Researcher, and Mentor, Oliver ‘Ollie’ Press, MD, PhD, Dies at 65

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Oliver “Ollie” Press, MD, PhD. 
Photo Credit: Robert Hood/Fred Hutch News Service

Oliver “Ollie” Press, MD, PhD. Photo Credit: Robert Hood/Fred Hutch News Service

In 1988, 38-year-old Rita Lawrence found herself in a desperate situation. The lymphoma she’d been battling had recurred after 2 years of remission. She’d endured multiple rounds of tough chemotherapy, but it couldn’t stave off the swiftly growing tumors. When she learned of a radioimmunotherapy trial in Seattle, she braced for the hardship of leaving her family in Illinois and flew to Seattle, becoming the fifth patient on the trial. The treatment was highly experimental, but she was confident because the doctor leading the trial, Oliver “Ollie” Press, MD, PhD, was “unlike any doctor she’d ever met.” Ms. Lawrence responded to the treatment, and her cancer went into full remission. She’s alive to this day. Dr. Press died on September 29, 2017, of complications from brain cancer. He was 65.

An Early Passion for Zoology

Dr. Press was born and reared in St. Louis. As a boy, he developed an early passion for zoology and spent long hours in the park near the family home looking for frogs and snakes. As an undergrad at Stanford University, Dr. Press flirted with pursuing careers in herpetology and marine biology before settling on medicine. After graduating from Stanford in 1973 with a BS in biology, Dr. Press entered the University of Washington, receiving his PhD in 1977 and his medical degree in 1979. At Stanford, Dr.

Press met his future wife, Nancy, in a study-abroad program in Germany. The couple married the day after Dr. Press’ graduation from medical school in 1979. Nancy had a career as a medical librarian, which was a natural fit with Dr. Press’ work in the laboratory. She recalled flushing marrow out of mouse bones for his PhD research project. “We were in this together,” she said during an interview, recalling how she would program computerized catalogues with the punch-card technology of the day.

Throughout the years, Ms. Press edited Dr. Press’ grant applications and also served as research administrator in his laboratory. Known for his zealous approach to research and his self-imposed grueling schedule, Dr. Press noted: “My wife deserves at least half the credit for staying with me and dealing with my fanaticism.”

Storied Work Ethic

Dr. Press’ reputation as a tireless researcher began building early on during medical school at the University of Washington. “Ollie had an unusually high research output on top of the position’s duties in leadership and teaching. And over the course of his career, he could invariably be spotted in his lab or office early in the mornings, at night, and on the weekends,” said his mentor at the time Paul G. Ramsey, MD, Chief Executive Officer of University of Washington Medicine and Dean of the School of Medicine.

Dr. Press’ groundbreaking research in radioimmunotherapy began when he was a fellow at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1980 and was instrumental in the therapy’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2002. Clinical trials he led have demonstrated some of the best outcomes ever seen in certain blood cancers. However, Dr. Press expressed concern that radioimmunotherapy had relatively low use in clinical practice; to that end, he led the development of new technologies to help increase the strategy’s acceptance among clinicians. For instance, a technique he was working on was a new class of low-wavelength radioactive compounds called alpha-emitters, which would make the procedure possible in the outpatient setting. More recently, Dr. Press and mentee Brian Till, MD, developed a genetically engineered immune-cell therapy targeting CD20, which is being studied in the first-in-human trial for patients with difficult non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

Said Fred Hutch colleague David Maloney, MD: “Ollie was a pioneer in targeted therapies. He was working with antibodies back in a time when antibodies weren’t big business and with [chimeric antigen receptor] T cells when they weren’t the most promising thing.”

A Valued Mentor and Leader

During his career, Dr. Press was widely recognized for his mentorship of more than 70 promising scientists and clinicians. For those efforts, he received the 2016 Mentorship Award from the University of Washington Department of Medicine. Subsequently, Fred Hutch unveiled the “Oliver ‘Ollie’ W. Press Award for Extraordinary Mentorship” to honor his contributions to cancer research. Mentee Damien Green, MD, summed up the sentiment of all those mentored by Dr. Press: “He has transformed my life.”

“The young people are the future. My day is over. To continue with success, you need young people who are bright and motivated and dedicated,” said Dr. Press at the ceremony. He will posthumously receive the American Society of Hematology Mentor Award in December 2017.

When Doctor Becomes Patient

In 2015, Dr. Press was diagnosed with glioma and took a medical leave from Fred Hutch and the University of Washington to focus on his own treatment. Reflecting on his clinical situation he said, “I look at myself like I look at my patients. I think I’m very realistic about it, treating myself the same, and thinking about myself the same, and realizing I have the same limitations. It gives me a little more, I think, insight and perspective into how it really feels to have cancer.”

Dr. Press had numerous national leadership roles such as Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Lymphoma Research Foundation and Co-Chair of the National Cancer Institute’s Lymphoma Steering Committee, which guides the design of national clinical trials for lymphoma, many of which were led by Dr. Press. In 2013, Dr. Press was appointed Acting Senior Vice President and Acting Director of the largest research division at Fred Hutch.

He continued to serve in that role after his cancer diagnosis until a new leader, Nancy Davidson, MD, took over on December 1, 2016. Dr. Davidson, a former ASCO President, remarked: “I had never met Ollie before I came to Seattle. From the moment I met him it was immediately apparent that Ollie was everything one could hope for: a highly skilled and caring physician, an innovative and visionary cancer researcher, a talented administrative leader, and an exceptional mentor for so many, including me as a newcomer.”

Dr. Press is survived by numerous family members, including his wife of 38 years, Nancy Press, and two sons, -Maximilian, 30, a geneticist at the University of Washington, and Michael, 33, a lawyer in Boston. But like all great doctors, Dr. Press will be remembered for his relentless dedication to the noble field of medicine. After brain surgery one Friday in October 2015 to remove the tumor that had been diagnosed just days before, he was back at work on Monday; he had patients scheduled in the clinic, and he couldn’t imagine cancelling on them. Of course, he couldn’t. ■