Michael Toelle, superintendent of the Tomorrow River Schools, recently became the first patient at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center to be infused with an experimental cellular therapy designed to prevent infections in leukemia patients.

Toelle has been a patient at UW Health's University Hospital in Madison since he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) the day after Thanksgiving.

He’s had one round of high-dose chemotherapy and will have another before he has a bone marrow transplant, likely in January.

A patient in a hospital bed
Michael Toelle

Peiman Hematti, MD, a bone marrow transplant physician at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center and director of Clinical Hematopoietic Cell Processing Laboratory, is the site principal investigator for this clinical trial that Toelle signed up for. The cellular therapy under investigation in this clinical trial is made from stem cells derived from the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

Chemotherapy can destroy a patient’s infection-fighting white blood cells, called neutrophils, leaving them vulnerable to infection.

“The hope is that this new cell therapy will help prevent infections and keep the patients healthier as they go through chemotherapy,” says Hematti, who also is a professor of medicine (hematology/oncology) in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

UW Carbone Cancer Center is one of 36 cancer centers worldwide to test the new treatment.

Toelle is adjusting to his surprise diagnosis.

“I’ve never been in the hospital a day in my life,” he says. “My leukemia was discovered just by chance, because I had my annual physical and my blood counts were off.”

Toelle has a twin brother, Mark, an elementary school principal in the New Lisbon schools, who will be tested as a bone marrow donor, as will other relatives.

About acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

Acute myeloid leukemia is a type of cancer that begins in the bone marrow. The disease progresses rapidly, with an overproduction of abnormal myeloid cells taking over the bone marrow and interfering with the production of normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The standard treatment for acute myeloid leukemia includes high-dose chemotherapy, followed by bone marrow transplant. The American Cancer Society estimates that there were approximately 19,520 new cases of AML in the United States in 2018.