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How the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund Helped Save the Life of Lilly Boyer

The summer of 2012 changed everything in 17-year-old Lilly Boyer’s life. While working as a summer camp counselor near her home of Fork, Md., Lilly, who was looking forward to her senior year of high school and a bright future beyond, became severely ill.

After spending more than a month in the hospital suffering from liver failure, doctors diagnosed Lilly with a rare bone marrow failure disorder called severe aplastic anemia. Her illness was believed to be caused by her immune system attacking its own blood stem cells, and as a result, Lilly’s bone marrow stopped producing red and white blood cells and platelets.

For patients like Lilly, a bone marrow transplant is one of the only curative options for recovery. However, transplants require a matched bone marrow donor, which Lilly and many other patients don’t have. So Lilly’s bone marrow transplant physicians, as a last resort, immediately began prepping her for a novel, state-of-the-art clinical protocol of a stem cell therapy available only through Johns Hopkins.

Elias Zambidis, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of oncology and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Christopher Gamper, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of oncology and pediatrics at the school of medicine, collaborated with Robert Brodsky, M.D., director of the school of medicine’s Division of Hematology, to treat Lilly as part of a clinical trial examining the use of high-dose cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy agent, to treat aplastic anemia and other autoimmune conditions.

Under the supervision of Zambidis, the cyclophosphamide eliminated Lilly’s immune cells that were attacking her blood cells and allowed her own blood stem cells to regenerate. The risky treatment succeeded, and Lilly is now leading a productive life and plans to study medicine.

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF) has been critical to our stem cell research, because it has given us the resources to investigate bold, out-of-the-box ideas,” says Zambidis, with regard to the MSCRF-funded clinical trial that saved Lilly’s life. “The support of the MSCRF has enabled our bone marrow transplant physicians to continue to see patients while pursuing basic research. Most importantly, funding from the MSCRF has helped us bring lifesaving stem cell therapies to people who are suffering.”

“I am very grateful for the care I received from Drs. Brodsky and Zambidis at Johns Hopkins as part of an important clinical trial,” says Lilly. “Stem cell therapies can have a great impact on rare disorders like mine, but also on more common illnesses that affect hundreds of thousands of Americans - like heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. If not for organizations like the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund that actively supporting basic stem cell research, I may not be here today.”