Stem Cell Transplant May Be Only Way to Stop Progression of Nervous System Disease
August 6, 2003
Cary Leider Vogrin
Leona Duncan is a mom on a mission, a mission to save her daughter.
She makes persistent phone calls trying to find someone who might be able to help. Don't return a call promptly, and she'll call again. And again.
"I want to be fair with people and give them time to answer me, but I don't want to fall through the cracks. I don't want my daughter to be a statistic," Duncan said.
Duncan's 28-year-old daughter, Wendie, has multiple sclerosis - a progressive disease of the nervous system that primarily affects women. There is no cure, and traditional therapies try to slow the disease.
Duncan has watched as her daughter's condition swiftly worsened. She thinks an experimental procedure at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago is her daughter's only hope.
"A year and half ago, she was a fully functioning person," said Duncan, who lives in Penrose.
"She doesn't wear her contacts anymore because she has tremors in her right hand and can't put contacts in her eyes. She can't even cut her own meat.
"I notice the little things she can't do anymore. A mother sees that kind of stuff."
What she can still do, though, is crucial: Wendie can walk unassisted, but only on flat ground. That is the one thing she needs to be able to do to qualify for the stem-cell procedure being done on patients with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
The procedure is meant to stop the disease, said Dr. Richard Burt, chief of immunotherapy for autoimmune diseases at Northwestern Memorial.
Burt said clinical trials began five or six years ago, and earlier tests on animals showed the procedure can work.
"What the animals taught us is you have to treat early for it to be really effective. Now we won't take people late in the disease," he said.
In such a procedure, the patient is the donor. Immature cells - also known as stem cells - are collected from the blood, the immune system is wiped out with chemotherapy and the patient is infused with "cleansed" stem cells in hopes they will multiply into a healthy immune system.
Burt said the procedure has been done on about 80 patients suffering from autoimmune diseases; 24 have been on MS patients.
In some cases, the procedure has even brought back some functions to MS sufferers, he said.
He has, however, had to turn down many people because they are too far along.
Wendie Duncan Reese, who met with Burt in June, could be nearing that point. Because her insurance company has not given the go- ahead, her family is trying to raise as much as $75,000 for the procedure and living expenses.
Multiple sclerosis isn't the only tragedy to befall Duncan Reese, who went to Stratton Meadows Elementary in Colorado Springs and graduated from Florence High.
In 1996, one of her twin boys, who were 14 weeks premature, died two weeks after birth.
A year later, she began noticing tingling and numbness in her feet.
Traditional therapies have not brought her into remission, and she is allergic to a drug many people with MS use.
The family has several small fund-raisers planned.
"It's a pretty small community, but nobody down here has that kind of money," said Leona Duncan. "But they're all helping me in any way they can."
Duncan said she has no doubt what will happen if her daughter doesn't get the transplant.
"We don't think of MS as being big-time killer, but some forms of it are more aggressive than others, and it will kill her."
The Wendie Duncan Reese Transplant Fund has been set up at Pueblo Bank
and Trust, which has two branches in Colorado Springs.
Copyright © 2003, The Gazette