Forty years ago, Jason Kahle’s future looked bleak. He had been diagnosed with aplastic anemia. An Ohio physician told Kahle and his family that he had six months to live. He was 7 years old at the time.
Kahle is still here today, thanks to a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota, a pioneer in the field and one of the few health systems in the world in 1978 to offer a blood and marrow transplant.
This year, the University of Minnesota celebrates the 50th anniversary of the world’s first successful matched, related donor bone marrow transplant—which was performed in 1968 at University of Minnesota Medical Center by Robert Good, MD. Since then, the institution has performed nearly 8,000 blood and marrow transplants for the treatment of various blood cancers, including the transplant that saved Kahle’s life.
That procedure has given Kahle an extra 40 years and counting — and he’s not wasting it.
“Since my transplant, I’ve always had this mentality: I’ve been given a second chance, so I better do something with it,” he said. “That’s led me to be very driven, to want do something worthwhile with my time, to help others.”
Kahle combined that desire with his strong interest in art and medicine. Now, he researches and designs prosthetic limbs to for amputees.
When Kahle was 7 years old, he woke up in his family home in Toledo, Ohio, with a black eye. He could not explain how it got there. It didn’t go away after four days, so his parents took him to the doctor.
Eventually, Kahle and his parents wound up talking with an oncologist. The oncologist told him he had aplastic anemia, a rare condition in which the body stops producing enough new blood cells. His doctor told him there was no cure.
As his family was leaving the doctor’s office, a nurse ran up to them and told them to go to the Medical College of Ohio. There, they were told that University of Minnesota was offering an emerging treatment for Kahle’s condition: a bone marrow transplant.
To receive a bone marrow transplant, the donor and recipient must have matching human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), which are protein markers on cells in your body that help the immune system distinguish between unwanted invaders such as viruses or bacteria and the body’s own, normal cells. At the time, only direct relatives could be matches. Fortunately, Kahle’s sister was a match.
In 1978, under the care of renowned cancer researcher John Kersey, MD, Kahle successfully underwent a bone marrow transplant after receiving total body radiation. He spent the next six months in isolation, drawing and watching television. Only 25 procedures of this kind had been performed before Kahle received his bone marrow transplant, and only 12 patients had survived. He was the 13th, he said.
“I live life everyday like I’m lucky to live one more day,” Kahle said.
The University of Minnesota has been making stories like Kahle’s possible for more than five decades. In 1968, Robert Good, MD, performed the world's first successful matched, related donor bone marrow transplant. That accomplishment and the ones that followed led University of Minnesota Health to become one of the leading authorities on blood and marrow transplants.
“For decades, we have led the way in transplantation care,” said University of Minnesota Health Hematologist/Oncologist Shernan Holtan, MD. “People are comforted knowing the storied history of our program and—more importantly—how many of the standard practices we use today were developed and refined right here at the University of Minnesota.”
That history continues to bring in patients from around the country—and the world. Unlike many adult transplant centers, University of Minnesota Health BMT program accepts a broad array of patients with malignant and non-malignant disorders of the bone marrow and immune system, including those patients who do not have a matched related donor.
“We have protocols that allow us to take on many different types of clinical challenges, giving patients a place to receive care when they’ve been turned away elsewhere,” said Holtan, who is also an expert on graft-versus-host disease, post-transplant care and survivorship.
Since Kahle’s procedure in 1978, virtually every aspect of transplant care has improved, Holtan said, and it will keep getting better. She said the program’s lengthy history has allowed it to build upon itself—further refining already leading-edge techniques and improving care for some of the sickest patients.
“Over the decades, we’ve worked to build the standards for blood and marrow transplant care, we’ve expanded donor possibilities for our patients and we’ve made transplants possible for a greater number of people with non-malignant diseases,” she said. “Today, we’re creating a transplant program for the future.”
Kahle’s bone marrow transplant affected more than just his physical health. It changed his sense of purpose, too.
While he was in isolation as a child, Kahle spent much of his time drawing. The experience boosted his interest in art and led him to pursue a career as an artist. Later, he refined that vision to include the world of medicine and health. Kahle has worked to research, design and create artificial limbs for amputees for almost 25 years.
Apart from his research—he’s received millions of dollars in federal grant funding to research and improve prosthetics—Kahle also works for a foundation that that benefits veterans and low-income people in addition to amputee dogs.
While the bone marrow transplant saved his life, Kahle continues to deal with lingering health issues related to his treatment regimen. As a young child, he never lost a tooth naturally because his bones stopped growing. He also developed cataracts in both eyes by age 11. Now, he needs a new aortic valve. He is also unable to have children.
“Long-term health issues like this are why University of Minnesota Health created a Cancer and BMT Survivor Program,” Holtan said. “The program helps patients understand, manage and often prevent further health risks.”
BMT recipients are susceptible to cardiac health issues, so regular screening and health check-ups are important for patients. Our program also provides fertility preservation options for our patients whenever possible.
“We also encourage our patients to take control over their health,” Holtan said. “We help empower them to set health-related goals and provide support for them to achieve those goals. Health doesn’t just come from prescriptions or procedures from a medical providers’ office. It is an active process that requires effort each day.”
“I’ve lived my life knowing I want to leave behind a different kind of legacy,” Kahle said. “I was given a second chance. I want to help people, I want to make a difference.”