Blood and Marrow Transplant Program: Celebrating 20 Years of Life-Saving Treatment

It was a scene from any reunion—lots of hugs, laughter, and joy at seeing old friends. But instead of high school acquaintances or long-lost cousins, these were doctors, nurses, patients, and survivors, all coming together to celebrate 20 years of the Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Program at the University of Utah (U of U) and the opening of the brand-new inpatient BMT unit at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). The BMT Program diagnoses and treats blood-related cancers including leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

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Speakers at the event included clinical care providers, cancer survivor Pat Bearnson, who received one of the program's first transplants (read her story), and Sheldon Urlik, whose wife, Sandra, recently underwent a bone marrow transplant.

"Today we have a unique opportunity to celebrate not only this brand-new building, but 20 years of operation of our transplant program," said Michael Boyer, MD, acting BMT Program Director. "It's really fitting that we look back now at those who started the program and also to those who have benefitted from it."

Patrick Beatty, MD, PhD, the first director of the BMT Program, described its beginnings. "Twenty-one years ago I got a call from Dr. James Kushner [former Chief of the U of U's Division of Hematology], who said, 'How would you like to come to Utah and set up a brand-new BMT program?' He had the vision that this was something the U of U needed," said Beatty. Kushner recruited Beatty from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, which previously had been the nearest facility to Utah with a BMT program. The U of U's BMT Program officially began in 1991, with 19 transplants performed that year. Today, more than 2,200 transplants have been performed. Watch the video below from the BMT anniversary event.


For more than 20 years, BMT services were housed at University Hospital, but HCI's expansion brought the opportunity to move the BMT unit to the cancer hospital. HCI worked in partnership with University of Utah Health Care to build a state-of-the-art BMT unit with more than twice the beds. Relocating these services to the cancer hospital also means patients who need BMT can go to the same building for nearly all of their cancer care needs.

Donna Gavura, RN, who worked in the unit when it first opened, described what it was like. "At the time, we thought it was a big deal—all the unit's rooms were private. But there were limitations. Because of the infection precautions, some of the patients in those rooms didn't have access to a bathroom or a shower. They had to use a toilet chair at their bedside.

"The new unit is a huge, huge improvement," continues Gavura, citing the views as an important feature. "Now the patients are able to overlook the valley or the mountainside. These folks are in the hospital for weeks or months at a time, so it's nice for them to have a view out their window." Take a virtual tour of a BMT inpatient room on the fourth floor of the cancer hospital.

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BMT Nurses and Staff

After treating patients in the new unit for several weeks, the BMT unit's inpatient nurse manager, Marina Fernandez, RN, confirms that "the patients like the views. And they like the rooms." It's no wonder, since each of the 25 rooms comes with HCI's trademark comforts and conveniences: a private bathroom, attractive décor, a sofa bed for a loved one to spend the night, wireless connectivity, and a TV and DVD player.

The rooms are specially designed to meet the needs of BMT patients, whose immune systems are weakened. Several cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma, are treated with BMT. These patients are often in the hospital for extended periods of time, and they must take drugs that suppress or weaken the immune system so the newly transplanted cells won't be rejected. In addition, high doses of chemotherapy or radiation treatment destroy the cells that create infection-fighting white blood cells. That means BMT patients have a much lower ability to fight even common bacteria or viruses. Rooms in HCI's BMT Unit feature high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration to provide the cleanest air possible.

Michael Deininger, MD, PhD, Chief of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies for HCI, described the new unit as "unrivaled. It is unrivaled in this country and probably unrivaled internationally. It speaks to our commitment to provide excellent cancer care, but also to our commitment to provide this care in the most compassionate environment possible."

What Are Blood and Marrow Transplants?

Blood and marrow transplants are treatments that give patients healthy bone marrow stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft tissue inside bones that produces immature cells, called stem cells. These stem cells mature into different kinds of blood cells.

Blood and marrow transplants treat a variety of cancerous and noncancerous diseases involving the blood, marrow, and lymphatic systems. At Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), these transplants are given to patients with blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, so those patients can safely receive high-dose chemotherapy. High-dose chemotherapy is very effective at killing blood cancer cells, but it also destroys some healthy cells in the process. Giving a patient healthy stem cells after high-dose chemotherapy allows the patient’s bone marrow cells to recover sooner.

During a blood and marrow transplant, the patient receives healthy stem cells through a large vein. New blood cells develop from the transplanted stem cells. The new blood cells replace the ones that were destroyed by treatment.