After 40 years and 5,000 transplants, a U celebration

  • Article by: H.J. CUMMINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2008 - 9:06 PM

Since 1968, when the University of Minnesota performed the first successful bone marrow transplant, thousands of lives have been changed.

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Dr. John Wagner stood with former patient Erik Haines, 16, of Maple Grove at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the world’s first bone marrow transplant. The event was held at the University of Minnesota.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Erik Haines rarely thinks about a transplant 14 years ago that saved his life.

That's what makes him a normal 16-year-old, and that's the greatest gift of all, his parents, Paul and Kim Haines, said Saturday.

Along with 500 other former patients and doctors, they had gathered at the University of Minnesota to celebrate a program that 40 years ago accomplished the first successful human bone marrow transplant in the world.

The Haineses, of Maple Grove, reconnected with John Wagner, Erik's doctor at the university's Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, which has continued to pioneer transplant procedures.

In Erik's case, when there was no possible bone marrow donor, Wagner turned to umbilical cord blood to treat a rare form of leukemia that otherwise would have been fatal. It was the first use of cord blood from a donor not related to the patient. Erik is now the second-longest survivor of any cord blood transplant in the world.

"I just remember the doctor saying right after, 'This was purely theoretical,'" Kim Haines said.

"There were no good options," Wagner recalled. "We were just trying to come up with some possibility."

The U's bone marrow program has been coming up with new possibilities since the late Dr. Robert Good successfully transplanted bone marrow into an infant with an immune deficiency syndrome in 1968. It can claim a long line of firsts, including: the first successful marrow transplant in a patient with lymphoma, in 1975; the first marrow transplant for an inherited metabolic disease, in 1982; Erik's cord transplant in 1994; and as recently as last year, a marrow transplant to cure a deadly skin disease -- the first use of marrow for an illness other than blood or bone marrow disorders. The center performed its 5,000th marrow transplant last year.

Dr. John Kersey, who made the 1975 breakthrough on lymphoma treatment, said new methods in testing donor compatibility in the 1960s and '70s, made success possible for the first time.

The University of Minnesota has led the way, Kersey believes, "because there was always the sense here that you could tackle really difficult problems, that you could actually believe you can cure a patient of what had been an incurable disease."

Patients come from all over the country and the world, often after no other place will treat them, he said.

One, who traveled from South Carolina to attend the Saturday reunion, was Everdina Darby. Darby was a young mother of four in Connecticut in 1983 when she was diagnosed with leukemia. The famous Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York declined to treat her, saying that at 39 she was too old for a marrow transplant. Darby came to the University of Minnesota, where Dr. Greg Vercellotti didn't give up on her.

"So I came today to honor my doctor," she said.

H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671

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