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U of M marks 40th anniversary of first successful bone marrow transplant

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Rare disease
Dave Stahl was the recipient of the world's first successful bone marrow transplant to treat Burkitt's lymphoma - a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was 16 years old when he received his transplant in 1975 at the U of M.
Photo Courtesy of Dave Stahl

Dr. John Kersey was a U of M medical student when his mentor Dr. Robert Good used bone marrow stem cells to successfully treat a 4-month old boy. The baby suffered from a genetic immune system disease that had killed 11 male children in his extended family. 

Dr. Good and his team were determined to figure out a way to save the infant, Kersey says. 

"Back in those days it was very common for people to say if a child has a very severe disease there's nothing that can be done about it. And the attitude amongst my colleagues here was, 'No. We should be trying new things. We should be doing things we can to cure these diseases.'"  

Going home
Dave Stahl and his family the day he was discharged from the hospital. He had spent two months in the same sterile room after his bone marrow transplant.
Photo Courtesy of Dave Stahl

It took two transplants, but eventually the baby recovered. 

U of M doctors succeeded where others had failed because they focused on getting the best bone marrow match possible for their young patient, Kersey says.  

"That was one of the major reasons why the late 1960's became so important," says Kersey, "because the understanding of the matching became possible." 

Seven years later it was Kersey who helped the U of M mark another transplant milestone. The then-practicing physician used the same technique to successfully treat a 16-year-old with a form of lymphoma.

Dave Stahl had been diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma - a rare cancer that was always fatal. He was given three to six months to live. A bone marrow transplant was his only hope, Stahl says. 

Early isolation room
Dr. John Kersey stands outside the BMT isolation room. Sometimes patients would stay in this room for months while recovering from a transplant
Photo Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

"It's kind of, this is it. This is it. If this doesn't work, I'm gone," says Stahl. 

He still remembers what it was like to stay in the bone marrow unit in those days. Doctors had destroyed his immune system with chemotherapy and radiation, so they took every precaution to make sure he didn't get exposed to germs. 

Stahl had to take iodine baths twice a day. He couldn't brush his teeth because he might be exposed to bacteria. He also had to swallow a solution that he says tasted like motor oil. It was to cleanse his system. 

"I had no skin-to-skin contact with anybody," says Stahl. "Anybody that ever came to my room was all gloves and masks and stuff and that's all I (saw). And the only time I (saw) them without their gloves and masks was when they were standing outside my door and then I could look out."

The first few days after his transplant were filled with tension.

Remission
Dave Stahl is now 49 years old. He's married and has a young son.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"Every day they'd come in and check blood and then I'd wait for them and say, 'What's my count? What's my count?' And that was a sign of the bone marrow actually starting to reproduce cells, blood cells," says Stahl. 

Eventually his blood counts began to climb. Two months later he was finally sent home from the hospital. 

Today Dave Stahl is 49 years old. He has a wife and a 13-year-old son. University doctors gave him a life that he could have never had otherwise, he says.

"They tried something new and took a long-shot and it worked," says Stahl. "And I feel great now that there (are) probably I don't know how many other kids that have Birkett's Lymphoma that are living now because of that." 

Researchers have made many treatment advances in the years since Stahl's transplant. Many lymphoma patients now take powerful drugs to fight their cancer instead of having a bone marrow transplant, Dr. Kersey says.

Transplant doctor
Dr. John Kersey led the medical team that performed Dave Stahl's experimental bone marrow transplant.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"My dream has always been that at some point in the future these won't be necessary," says Kersey, "and that we will have something simpler, such as a pill that you can take for cancer or better yet to prevent it." 

Dr. Kersey doesn't see patients anymore. For the past two years he's been spending his time the way he began his career - in the research lab studying mice that have leukemia. He says he has a few new theories that he and his team hope will lead to even better treatments.