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Innovative cancer treatment method pioneered by M Health doctors shows promise for young patients

Parker Lloyd, 2, was one of the first children to participate in a new cancer treatment program that eliminates radiation therapy, which can impede brain growth and cognitive development in young children.
Parker Lloyd, diagnosed as an infant with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), was one of the first children to receive an innovative new treatment regimen at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
Editor’s Note: The treatment protocol developed by Michael Verneris, MD, is an emerging technique that is currently in clinical trials at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Learn more about this trial. Michael Verneris is no longer employed by University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, but many other Masonic Children's Hospital experts continue to carry out groundbreaking pediatric cancer research to find a cure for every child.

When Tyler and Maggie Lloyd of Sheldon, Iowa, visited their toddler’s primary care doctor in 2014, they expected 2 year-old Parker would receive a seasonal allergy diagnosis.

But when his blood work showed abnormally low amounts of healthy blood cells, the doctor ordered an emergency blood transfusion. Subsequent tests revealed terrifying news.

Parker was living with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a pre-leukemia syndrome affecting just one in 500,000 infants.

“On the surface, you wouldn’t have known he was sick, other than bruising we thought was from the activities of a normal 2 year-old,” Tyler said. “But underneath the surface, Parker was in a pretty bad situation. Our lives were turned upside down. We went from our little town Sheldon to Sioux Falls to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye.”

Emerging Breakthrough
Patients battling blood-related cancers like MDS and leukemia typically receive a combination of chemotherapy drugs, radiation and stem cell transplantation.

But, for infants like Parker, the radiation used to prime the body for stem cell transplantation can stunt brain growth and cognitive development. To overcome this side effect, University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Physician Michael Verneris, MD, and Pediatric Hematologist/Oncologist John Wagner, MD, who both see patients at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, started researching whether combinations of chemotherapy alone and no radiation could defeat the cancer in infants.

“Through research, we’ve learned the treatments that work for adults aren’t always the best course of action for kids,” said Verneris. “As a leading academic medical center, we have an obligation to discover breakthroughs, knowing that our future generations depend on it.”

Verneris and Wagner, both members of Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, have taken this approach in more than 20 patients like Parker so far. The treatment is followed by a cord blood transplant, which replaces the abnormal bone marrow and helps these patients rebuild a new immune system, free of MDS.

Learn more about our pediatric blood and marrow transplant services at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.

Remission Accomplished
After multiple discussions with Verneris and his team, the Lloyd family felt that this experimental approach was best for Parker.

During treatment, Tyler, a teacher and football coach, found comfort in his community, which supported the Lloyd’s while they stayed in Minneapolis. Coincidentally, one of Tyler’s students also received treatment from Verneris for a similar disease—a tangible sign that his baby boy could weather the storm.

“It’s never easy to hear a doctor describe your child’s cancer treatment, but it’s all about trust,” said Tyler. “We trusted the doctors, and wanted to be ahead of the curve. By moving forward with this experimental treatment, we knew that other kids’ chances of survival could also improve.”

Parker received his chemo regimen and cord blood transplant in October 2014. He was out of the hospital just two months later.

Nearing the one-year anniversary since returning home from the hospital, Parker is doing well and is in remission. He is developing normally, hitting all the normal cognitive milestones typical of a 3-year-old. And after treatment, Parker is far more energetic, which is evident when he plays with his older brother on the play-set he received from Make-A-Wish.

“There are so many questions when your family is faced with a situation like this,” said Tyler. “Research leads to some of the answers, so we followed that path. Now Parker’s going to grow up to follow his own path.”