Changing childhood diseases from “terminal” to “treatable” is the legacy of the late Dr. John Kersey, who was remembered Tuesday night at a dedication ceremony at the University of Minnesota.
Just ask David Stahl.
A Minnesota teenager in 1975, Stahl was the world’s first recipient of a bone-marrow transplant for malignant lymphoma. Today, at 55, he is alive to tell the tale and credits Kersey for the intelligence and confidence to lead a transplant that had never succeeded before.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Kersey, I wouldn’t be here,” said Stahl, a technical illustrator who is married and whose son is studying engineering at the U. “He was the one who said, ‘This is your one option. Let’s try this.’ Other people could have said, ‘We have no help for you.’ ”
U officials have been planning a way to remember Kersey since his death at age 74 in March 2013. A display unveiled in the U’s Cardio Cancer Research Building will provide a permanent reminder of his pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation and cancer care, as well as his role as the founder of the U’s blood and bone marrow transplant program, and as founding director of the U’s Masonic Cancer Center.
In a 2008 Star Tribune interview, Kersey said, “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.”
Building on Kersey’s early work, the U has grown into one of the largest bone marrow transplant centers in the nation and a pioneer as well in the transplant of stem cells from umbilical cord blood. In 2000, the U was the first transplant center in the world to successfully complete a double cord-blood transplant, by which stem cells from two separate cord blood donors are transplanted to increase the odds of success.
A major technical hurdle Kersey overcame in the 1970s was the infection risk that imperiled cancer patients receiving bone marrow transplants along with the chemotherapy that destroyed their immune systems, said Dr. Jakub Tolar, director of the U’s Stem Cell Institute.
“Pediatric oncology was still in its infancy,” Tolar said. “Most doctors didn’t even want to touch it because they thought it was unethical. They thought it was cruel to the children to even put them through the hardships of chemotherapy and the complications of transplants, and that they should be let to die. He did not accept that.”