The Great Minnesota Get Together is right around the corner! This year, 17-year-old Nate Gfroerer and his family will be among the crowd for a very special reason- the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation (BMT) program at University of Minnesota.

Just two and a half years ago a trip to the state fair would not have possible for Nate. Then just 14 years old, he received the life-changing news that he had chronic myeloid leukemia- a blood cancer.

Nate was recommended for a bone marrow transplant. A bone marrow transplant replaces diseased or failing bone marrow with healthy stem cells from a donor that will eventually settle in the bone marrow and produce new blood cells. The procedure allows the recipient to get new stem cells that work properly. Fortunately, Nate’s older sister, Katelyn was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.

“Despite 2 years of chemotherapy, Nate’s leukemia was still detectable. Because of the seamless connection between research and clinical care, my oncologist colleagues and I knew Nate’s best option for cure was bone marrow transplant” said Christen Ebens, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota Medical School and faculty member of the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Center.

Now, after undergoing radiation, chemo, and a bone marrow transplant— Nate is cancer free!

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation (BMT) program at University of Minnesota, the Governor has officially declared August 24th “BMT Day”. To celebrate this milestone, and look to the future of research and care, Nate will join his Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Physician Dr. Ebens, and other patients, researchers, physicians and Medical School faculty at the State Fair.

The first bone marrow transplant between siblings who were not identical twins was done at the University of Minnesota Medical Center on August 24, 1968. Since that milestone 50 years ago, the institution has continued to lead the field, performing nearly 8,000 blood and marrow transplants for the treatment of various blood cancers.

“University of Minnesota has a rich history in bone marrow transplant, from that first successful sibling transplant to cutting-edge cell and gene therapies under investigation today. Providing care in a clinical research setting allows us to learn from every patient, to improve outcomes for the patients that follow,” said Ebens.

The use of bone marrow transplants is used for blood cancers and immune deficiencies, solid tumors, Fanconi anemia (FA), bone marrow failure disorders, and inherited metabolic diseases such as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) and Hurler and Hunter syndromes.

University of Minnesota Medical School researchers continue to improve upon the process. These improvements make BMT available to more people than ever before.

University of Minnesota experts are also exploring the use of bone marrow transplant to treat the skin blistering disease epidermolysis bullosa (EB), HIV/AIDS, and autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

A half-century of BMT expertise at the University has paved the way for precision medicine — using cell-based therapies that target disease and leave normal cells unharmed. Safer and less toxic, these approaches stand to improve long-term outcomes for patients. 

One experimental cell therapy being developed at the Medical School employs the power of the immune system’s own natural killer (NK) cells, white blood cells that kill viruses and detect and eliminate early signs of cancer.

University of Minnesota Medical Center and Masonic Children’s Hospital are among the 30 centers in the nation certified to offer another treatment, CAR T-cell therapy, to children and young adults with treatment-resistant or relapsed acute B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Like the NK approach, CAR T-cell therapy redirects a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

“The safety and effectiveness of BMT has improved dramatically over the past 50 years. Now, discoveries and technologies are transforming BMT into more precise, personalized therapies. I can only imagine how exciting the field will be in another 50 years!” said Ebens.