Alan Bushnell not only survived myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) but was lucky enough to cross a 10-year milestone since having a stem cell transplant. He celebrated by lacing up his boots and climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, one of many high peaks and trails he’s hiked over the years since his transplant.
While much has changed in the last decade, Bushnell’s adventurous and giving spirit has not. He and his wife, Kim, have a message for everyone at Wilmot.
“We want the staff to know what they do really matters, and there are good outcomes, and we want patients to know that,” Bushnell says. “I was able to do these things and that’s important for the team to see, and also important for patients getting ready to head into these big unknowns to see — that there can be a good life afterwards.”
Back in 2010, his life was filled with uncertainty following nine years of troubling bloodwork that indicated MDS, a type of blood cancer that can morph into leukemia. When his doctor said it was time for a transplant, Bushnell looked at other cancer centers before choosing Wilmot and Jane Liesveld, M.D., clinical director of the Blood & Marrow Transplant (BMT) and Cellular Therapies program, the Rochester region’s first program of its kind.
It’s a decision he has not regretted.
“My Wilmot care team was like a family,” he says, “and they were bringing on talented new people all the time.”
The program has grown since 2011. Compared to the decade prior, from 2011 to 2021 Wilmot completed about 37% more transplants and began offering CAR T-cell treatments – a therapy that didn’t even exist when Bushnell had his transplant. CAR T-cell therapy has become an option for more patients with more types of cancer. Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved CAR T-cell therapy for multiple myeloma, and Wilmot has already treated one multiple myeloma patient through a clinical trial.
Michael Becker, M.D., director of Wilmot’s BMT program and an MDS expert, says that people are a key component to success and growth. Since 2011, the BMT program has more than doubled its staff of nurse practitioners, added a physician, and is recruiting two additional physicians.
Transplants are also available for more patients, and options have expanded. Bushnell had an allogenic transplant, meaning a donor signed up for a registry and donated stem cells. In fact, Bushnell and his wife, Kim, have volunteered to hold bone marrow drives to help encourage more people to join the registry.
Bushnell recalls his nurse once saying, “What’d you do, kiss the Blarney stone?” because he had three 10-out-of-10 matches. While Bushnell was lucky, other patients are not always so fortunate to have a full match. It’s become more common to receive stem cells from only partly matched donors, which is called a “haploidentical transplant.” Patients may also consider a cord blood transplant, which uses stem cells from umbilical cord and placenta donations.
Older adults also may be eligible for transplants more often, as the intensity of the therapy has been reduced.
“When I started doing transplants in 1989, we rarely would even consider doing this for patients much above 50 years old but now we’re doing those into the early 70s,” Liesveld says. “That has expanded the number of patients who can benefit from transplant.”
On the research side, the biggest leaps have happened in the lab, with data that suggests new treatments for MDS and other blood cancers are on the horizon.
For example, a recent MDS clinical trial, opened by Wilmot investigator Jason Mendler, M.D., Ph.D., was based on science from the lab of Wilmot researcher Laura Calvi, M.D.
“Our understanding of the disease is always improving,” Becker says. “We have a far greater understanding of the molecular and mutational and non-mutational events that lead to development of and consequences of MDS.”
Patients like Bushnell and his family feel grateful.
“I’m thankful that they have research,” says Bushnell’s wife, Kim. “I’m always amazed now to hear how things have changed.”
That being said, Liesveld and Becker say they will not rest while there are still patients being diagnosed – and potentially dying – from MDS or other blood cancers.
“We work every day to make quality, to make things better,” Becker says.
Likewise, there are patients like Bushnell who have climbed the proverbial transplant mountain and who now want to help encourage others.