Alumni ProfileDavid Tubergen '59
Listening to leukemia, listening to God

TubergenEvery birth announcement brings news of a miracle, but especially the ones sent from all over the country to David Tubergen ’59.

From 1982 to 1989, Tubergen, a pediatric oncologist, designed and led what would become a landmark clinical study, one that changed the treatment of children with leukemia.

“When I started treating children with leukemia in the early ’60s, the outcome was pretty dismal,” Tubergen said. “Maybe 3 to 5 percent of patients were alive after five years. When the children were treated with just medications, they developed relapses in the central nervous system—areas around the brain—and then they developed bone marrow relapses and died. At St. Jude’s Hospital a group of researchers found they could decrease fatalities with radiation to the brain. But those children had significant long-term mental complications.”

By the late ’70s, Tubergen was on staff at The Children’s Hospital in Denver and working with a national collaborative called the Children’s Cancer Study Group. At a conference in San Francisco, he heard German researchers present findings that catalyzed his design of a new therapy trial. He hoped to devise an effective treatment that would give leukemia patients an alternative to brain irradiation. By 1987 the results were undeniable.

“Our study showed that for children under 10 years of age, one could substitute more intensive chemotherapy, some of it injected directly into the spine, and eliminate the irradiation altogether and thus its long-term toxic effects,” Tubergen explained.

The long-term results, too, he said, have been wonderful. “At 15 years, our survival data showed more than 75 percent of our patients survived with no permanent complications. I’ve lost track of the number of them who’ve sent me wedding and birth announcements.”

A member of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center staff in Houston since 1993, Tubergen left patient treatment and research in 2002. He has not left effecting broad changes in cancer care, though. Now the medical director of the M.D. Anderson Physicians Network, he manages a program that works with community hospitals across the country to upgrade their quality of care for adults with cancer.

Yes, he admits, he misses “the excitement of putting together a protocol which is based on reason and evidence and seeing it actually work in the clinic. On the other hand,” Tubergen added, “I had to realize that the world I worked in was moving on, and there were an awful lot of young people who knew more basic biology than I would ever know.”

That basic biology Tubergen thinks of as “the language God uses to communicate to His creation.” That’s a concept he found in The Language of God by Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project. “It’s a beautiful concept, and it really echoed in me,” Tubergen said. “As scientists who are Christians, we listen to God via our investigative techniques. As we listen, we learn more about the creation and how to control disease-causing changes in our biology.

“It has to be the young people now who do the listening, because they know better what to listen for, and I might miss it. That’s OK. I had 40 years of wonderful opportunity. Now it’s time for other people—many of whom I taught and learned from—to take over and do the listening.”