Search for bone marrow donor finds almost perfect candidate


By Curtis Wildfong • Last Updated 9:59 am on Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bree Town and her mother, Jennifer, received news this week that doctors have found a bone marrow donor. — Courtesy photo

GRAND RAPIDS — It’s an ideal match.

After learning in November the cancer she had been in remission from the past year had returned, the hunt for a bone marrow donor for 10-year-old Bree Town was underway. The Greenville student’s elementary school, Baldwin Heights, led the search by hosting a bone marrow drive earlier this month.

Well, that search is now over.

The Towns, upon their return to Helen DeVos Children’s Center in Grand Rapids for Bree’s final dosage of chemotherapy this go-round, finally got word from doctors on how the search was going.

“Her oncologist came in and told us the good news,” said Jennifer Town, Bree’s mother. “We are so happy, I can’t even believe it. I feel like it was a big weight lifted.”

Bree was diagnosed in 2012 with acute myeloid leukemia, which affects the myeloid line of blood. After intense chemotherapy, she had been in remission for a year when she felt pain in her leg. Tests confirmed the cancer had returned.

Bree immediately returned to DeVos Children’s Hospital for another round of chemotherapy, which she will complete this week. The hope was to find a donor during that time, and the Towns found out recently their wish had come true.

“I don’t think I would be able to put it into words how thankful and happy I am,” said Jennifer Town, trying to think of ways to thank the donor, about whom they have no information on other than he is a young male. “He is so selfless to do this for Bree.”

And the donor is not just a match, he is an essentially perfect match.

According to Dr. Ulrich Duffner, director of clinical services for the Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Program at DeVos, there are several factors that come into play for determining donor matches for bone marrow transplants.

He said the main focus is on the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system, which makes up the immune system.

“Our immune system uses this system to decide if this is something that should be in my body or if it is an intruder and the immune system should fight it,” Duffner said.

The more HLA genes that match, the higher chance of a successful transplant.

“When there is more of a match, there is a better chance for a successful transplant because there is less chance of a transplant complication,” Duffner added.

In the case of the donor for Bree, he is a 10-out-of-10 match.

Bree will undergo another three days of chemotherapy before going into isolation for three weeks. After that she may return home for a few days before heading back to the hospital to begin prepping for surgery. The plan, Jennifer Town said, is for the transplant to take place in about five weeks.

The transplant is recommended, Duffner said, because the high doses of chemotherapy breaks down and weakens the bone marrow, which produces blood cells.

And thanks to education and awareness, the likeliness of a donor match have drastically increased in recent decades.

Duffner said 15 years ago there were just 3 to 4 million people on the bone marrow registry. Now — thanks in part to events such as the one put on by Baldwin Heights Elementary School, which registered 248 people — he said there are more than 21 million.

Following surgery, Bree will be in what her mother called “extreme isolation,” in which only a select number of people will be allowed to ever enter her room. From there, she will continue to be monitored to ensure her body accepts the donor’s bone marrow, but that is then and this is now.

For now, the Towns said they are just thankful to find such a compatible donor.

“It’s amazing for someone who hasn’t even met Bree would do this,” Jennifer Town said.

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