FARGO — Sanford Health announced its first bone marrow transplant in what it calls a milestone toward its efforts to make the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo a national destination for cancer treatment.

The transplant, which involved harvesting the cancer patient’s own bone marrow, was completed in late October and announced on Wednesday, Nov. 17. The procedure was performed to collect the patient’s stem cells, which will be stored and infused after the patient receives chemotherapy.

“This is a major milestone,” said Dr. Ammar Alzoubi, a hematologist and director of the Sanford blood and bone marrow transplant program. Completion of the first autologous bone marrow transplant marks the start of North Dakota’s first bone marrow transplant program, he said.

“This process has been a lot of planning, and to see it finally take hold is really gratifying,” Alzoubi said.

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The procedure came after two years of planning and preparation that included hiring a clinical pathologist to supervise a specialized laboratory and bringing in a consultant to train staff, Alzoubi said.

Initially, Sanford planned to send stem cells to a lab to be treated and returned, but that didn’t prove workable, so Sanford decided to create its own “from scratch,” he said.

Roger Maris Cancer Center becomes the latest in the region and one of only 60 or 70 in the nation that have the capability to perform blood and bone marrow transplants, Alzoubi said.

More than 10 million cells were collected from the patient, who experienced no complications. The patient was admitted to Sanford’s inpatient oncology unit and received high-dose chemotherapy, followed by stem-cell infusion.

The patient, whose identity was not revealed, is now recovering at home. The patient was treated for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the immune system, with the goal of achieving a “deeper remission,” said Dr. Seth Maliske, a hematologist.

Having blood and bone marrow transplant services available at Roger Maris Cancer Center spares patients from having to travel to receive care, typically anywhere from three to 10 hours from home, and spend two to five months away while receiving treatment.

“Having this treatment available right here in Fargo-Moorhead is a game-changer,” said Maliske, who added that it will help reduce the time and financial burdens on cancer patients.

Sanford's blood and bone marrow transplant is the first in North Dakota, according to Sanford. Patients from its other hubs, in Sioux Falls, Bismarck and Bemidji, will be referred to the program, and other health systems, including Altru Health System in Grand Forks, are interested in referring patients, Alzoubi said.

Other blood and bone marrow transplant centers in the region include the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic, Billings, Madison, Milwaukee, Omaha and Iowa City, Maliske said.

The next phase of Sanford’s bone marrow transplant program involves planning next summer for allogeneic bone marrow transplants, which involve taking cells from a healthy donor’s bone marrow for transplant.

Plans call for that step to be followed late next year with CAR T-cell bone marrow transplants, where genetically modified T-cells are infused to treat cancer.

CAR T-cell therapy is a form of immunotherapy that uses specially altered T-cells — a part of the immune system — to fight cancer. A sample of a patient's T-cells is collected from the blood, then manipulated to produce what are called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) on their surface. When these CAR T-cells are reinfused into the patient, the new receptors enable them to latch onto a specific antigen on the patient's tumor cells and kill them.

Doctors at Roger Maris Cancer Center are scheduled to perform another autologous bone marrow transplant soon after Thanksgiving, and expect to do three or four others by the end of the year, Maliske said.

“Hopefully after that we’ll be able to pick up the volume in 2022,” he said.

Once all three programs are in place in 2023, Sanford will seek accreditation for its blood and bone marrow transplant program, Alzoubi said. When fully operational, the center expects to treat 50 to 100 patients per year, Maliske said.