MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — He was set to go to college last fall and play baseball, but leukemia changed that. Now, an 18-year-old man is part of the first-of-its-kind treatment that may allow him to fulfill his dream.

Derrick Keller is supposed to be playing baseball for Southwest Minnesota State University, not sitting in a hospital bed at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital. But last summer, just before he was set to leave for college on a baseball scholarship, Derrick began feeling weak.

“For no reason just jogging to centerfield and back, playing catch, my muscles would get extremely tired and I wasn’t feeling myself,” said Keller.

A blood test confirmed his family’s worst fears. Keller had a high-risk form of leukemia which could not be cured by chemotherapy.

“It was unexpected. I would never expect to hear that news. I was normal and it was just weird, I guess,” said Keller.

College was no longer an option. Neither was baseball, which was probably the hardest thing for Keller. But after months in and out of the hospital, his luck was about to change.

“We were able to show that cord blood was a very effective way of curing leukemia,” said Dr. John Wagner, who believes he may be able to cure Keller.

Twenty-two-years ago, Wagner performed the first umbilical cord transplant for leukemia in the U.S. He used stem cells from a newborn’s umbilical cord and found that they could clean up leukemia cells.

Ten years later, in 2000, he learned that mixing cord blood from two different babies was even more effective. Now, with Keller, he’s taking it a step further.

“What makes this particularly unique is that Derrick is the first person in the world to receive this therapy,” said Wagner.

Wagner says Keller would receive an expanded number of stem cells, beyond anything they’ve done before. On Feb. 7, Keller received 73 times more stem cells than the average patient gets.

Wagner’s theory is that the more stem cells Keller receives, the quicker the recovery time and less hospital visits down the road. The surgery was a success and, so far, Keller looks and feels better.

“We think we should be able to cure him of leukemia where, six months from now, you had no idea he ever went through a transplant,” said Wagner.

That would make him a part of history. For Keller, the thought of going to college and being able to play the sport he loves is more thrilling than all of his home runs combined.

“It gets tough sitting here when all my friends are off at college doing that kind of stuff. As soon as I can get back to playing ball and being the normal me again, it will feel great,” said Keller.

Wagner says, if successful, this treatment could be used for both children and adults.

If Keller continues to heal as fast as he is, Wagner sees no reason he can’t go to Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall this fall, where a baseball scholarship is still waiting for him.

John Lauritsen

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