A nondescript bag of red fluid hung next to 15-year-old Imani Cornelius as she lay in her hospital bed. Her parents sat nearby, chatting about Imani’s future soccer seasons at Shakopee High School.
This plain-looking fluid, however, was far from ordinary.
It contained bone marrow donated by a complete stranger, who wanted to help Imani overcome myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). The disease limited her ability to create healthy blood cells and, worse yet, could morph into an aggressive form of leukemia at any time.
As her parents discussed her high school soccer career, thousands of stem cells derived from the donor’s marrow were coursing through Imani’s IV as part of a stem cell transplantation. Imami’s care team and family members hope the new stem cells will rebuild her immune system and cure her MDS.
“We know that the stem cells found in bone marrow, peripheral blood and cord blood have great potential for rebuilding of blood-forming and immune system,” said Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist Jakub Tolar, MD, PhD.
Tolar is the director of the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota, and a member of its Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation team, which pioneered the bone marrow transplant procedure in 1968. “They’re the building blocks of regenerative medicine and our research is now showing how best to use these stem cell sources for transplantation in patients like Imani.”
When she was 9 years old, Imani started to get patches of dry, itchy skin. Dermatologists thought that it was psoriasis, but no treatments curbed her symptoms. After numerous unsuccessful prescriptions, dermatologists ordered a blood test, which led to the discovery of Imani’s pre-leukemic disorder.
The only hope for a cure was a bone marrow transplant. Like many other patients, Imani did not have a match within her family. Instead, she needed to find a suitable donor on the national Be The Match Registry.
“Out of 11 million people, she didn’t even have one matching donor, so we did everything we could to raise awareness about bone marrow donation,” said Tammy Berndt, Imani’s mother. “We knew that somewhere out there, someone could donate to Imani. And, when we found them, there would be some of the best doctors ready to take care of her at University of Minnesota.”
Patients are most likely to find a matching donor in someone with similar ethnic heritage. But, for mixed-race patients like Imani, the odds of finding a match are more difficult. Just 4 percent of the 11 million people listed on the registry are mixed-race.
After six long years, the family finally found a suitable match that could provide a potential cure for her condition. Tolar and his colleagues at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital determined an ideal radiation-chemotherapy regimen to prepare her for the procedure.
After two hours had passed, the life-giving bag of bone marrow was empty and the stem cell transplantation was complete.
Physically, Imani didn’t feel any different, though the stem cells were already starting the rebuilding process. Emotionally, however, she was grateful for her care providers at the hospital and the stranger who gave her a new lease.
“You can’t describe it,” she said. “That bag of someone else’s bone marrow becomes a part of you. You can only say ‘thank you.’ That’s it – thank you.”Imani will remain in the hospital for about six weeks. After that, she’ll return multiple times each week for follow up appointments to make sure her body is accepting the donor’s marrow. By next year, her parents hope they won’t be talking about soccer in the hospital; they’d much rather be watching Imani play on the field.