Dylan's superhero: A life-saving stem cell transplant from German blood bank

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - While most teens head to get their drivers permit at the age of 15, Dylan Walker was on the hunt for a new license on life.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia had a grasp on his growing teenage body.

"I cried," Dylan Walker said. "I didn't know how it was gonna turn out. I didn't know what was gonna happen in the future. I was just so confused and it was just too much to handle in my mind I just couldn't take it.

That's how Dylan describes learning he had AML – a type of blood and bone marrow cancer. Dylan was getting ready for a birthday party when he passed out in the shower. What looked like a virus turned out to be an aggressive form of cancer.

But, he didn't end up getting a bone marrow transplant.

"By the time they looked in the bank," Dylan's Mom Laurie Walker said, "there was one potential match, but when they called him in, it wasn't a perfect match. He was an 8/10 match instead of a 10/10 match."

Because of Dylan's high-risk markers, he needed a complete match.

"It was pretty stressful," Dylan said. "At first I did not feel confident at all - like this wasn't going to work."

But in August 2017, a "bat signal" from across the world, if you will: a cord blood stem cell transplant that would do the trick.

"It was just a tiny amount in a syringe," Laurie said. "Much less than I would've thought. I thought it was going to be this big bag of cells."

Dylan received what's called a cord blood stem cell transplant. The stem cells are harvested from a frozen and stored umbilical cord. This one came all the way from Germany, which houses the world' largest cord blood bank. The second largest bank in the world is right here in the Carolinas at Duke University in Durham.

"Cord blood is collected after the baby is born," said Dr. Kristin Page of Duke Health. "It's sent to our lab where it's processed and stored for later use."

Dr. Kristin Page is a pediatric blood and marrow physician at Duke Health and also the assistant medical director at Carolinas Cord Blood Bank. She said these stem cells can be used to treat a variety of diseases, including leukemia.

"We're able to give a new donor immune system," Page said. "And that immune system is able to recognize better than the person's own immune system that those cells are abnormal. So we're able to fight leukemia in two ways."

They're lifesaving stem cells found in umbilical cords – many times its thrown away. But pregnant moms can make the decision to donate theirs. Or, they can store in a private bank for a fee for future use for their own children. To donate to a public bank - all it takes is requesting a kit.

"Those cells are more naïve," Page said. "The baby and the mother have been living together for nine months. They're more forgiving of differences.  Therefore you don't need a perfect match.

For Dylan, doctors say he wouldn't have been able to use his own naïve stem cells. But, someone else's saved his life.

Dylan spent 68 days in the hospital, enduring pain not many of us could ever understand. But his will to live and fight his leukemia got stronger the longer he was inside those walls.

"Every single time we get any type of results, they were always good," Dylan said. "So I started to feel confident about it. I stayed calm and the longer I'm more confident the sooner I'm gonna get outta here."

Back home now, Dylan is now 16 years old and in remission. His stem cells are still 100 percent engrafted. While he will go back for routine checkups, he knows this procedure saved his life.

"I feel healthier. I feel more alive," he said.

And his message to the woman who made the choice to donate a piece of her birth to a person she would never know?

"I can't thank you enough that I'm alive right now still - and I'm at my home," Dylan said.

For more information on cord blood stem cell transplantation and the process it takes to be a donor, click here for more information from Duke Health.

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