When Sanela McKinney moved to the United States in 2000, she was a Bosnian refugee with her sights on a fresh start. But three years later, things weren’t going according to plan. She found herself in the middle of a divorce. She also started experiencing severe stomach pains that wouldn’t go away, and was rapidly losing weight.
At first, she attributed the symptoms to stress. But at one point, her stomach pain was so acute that she went to the emergency room. After several tests, which included a bone marrow biopsy, Sanela got some difficult news. She was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a slowly progressing disease in which bone marrow produces too many white blood cells.
“I wanted to jump out of the bed and run away screaming,” says Sanela, “At the time I was 25 and a single mom, so I was scared for my daughter Amela, too. But I looked at her and decided I needed to fight.”
Referral to Dr. DiPersio Gives Hope
It wasn’t long after her diagnosis that she was referred to John DiPersio, MD, PhD, a Washington University oncologist and deputy director of the Siteman Cancer Center. Dr. DiPersio, who specializes in bone marrow transplantation (BMT) and leukemia, has been instrumental in building Siteman Cancer Center’s leukemia and BMT program into what it is today. Now one of the largest program in the country, its physicians perform more than 400 BMT procedures a year.
From the moment I walked in his office, I knew I could rely on his team,” says Sanela. “I was on so many different medications, and each time I had a problem, Dr. DiPersio was ready to try something new. He never let me down.
For seven years, she underwent many extensive and grueling treatments and spent many weeks in the hospital. She also met and married her husband, Ralph, and they had a daughter, Emma, in 2005.
Unfortunately, by 2010 Sanela’s health was rapidly declining. Dr. DiPersio told her a bone marrow transplant was her only option for survival. While a donor was identified for her transplant, it wasn’t a perfect match—which presented some significant obstacles, specifically with how her cells would react to the donor cells. It’s in these situations when Siteman Cancer Center and Washington University’s strong research capabilities can change outcomes.
“We were able to get her into a clinical trial in which we did some nifty things,” says Dr. DiPersio. “We manipulated the stem-cell graft to remove the T-cells and enhance the activity of cells called natural killer cells. Then we did the transplant, which went very well.”
SPORE Clinical Trial Saves Sanela’s Life
Dr. DiPersio is part of the Washington University’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Leukemia team, which incubated the research that led to the clinical trial that ultimately saved Sanela’s life. SPORE is a prestigious grant program that provides funding and support to innovative cancer research, with the goal of rapidly turning scientific observations into treatments that can be applied to patients. You can read more about the SPORE team and its research in this InTouch issue.
“I was terrified about the clinical trial and the transplant,” says Sanela. “The first two weeks after the transplant were really tough. I lost my hair and a lot of weight, and there was a time when I couldn’t get up from the bed. But they were so wonderful every step of the way.”
It’s been nearly six years since her transplant in May 2010—and she’s still cancer free. In December 2015, she moved with her husband and two daughters to Kentucky. Sanela still keeps in regular contact with Dr. DiPersio and some of her other Siteman Cancer Center caregivers, and says she considers them friends.
“When I attended the BMT celebration shortly after my transplant, it was hard to believe Dr. DiPersio when he told me ‘someday, you’ll wake up and feel ok,’” says Sanela. “But I’m honestly doing so great, it’s just incredible. My hope is that we can fight together and beat leukemia for good.”