Originally created 08/28/99

Boy awaits donor in battle with cancer



Ho Young Jeon bounds through the living room with a banshee yell and races to a pile of toys.

"I've got a secret weapon," he proclaims, then whips out a green plastic gun and sputters out gunfire noises.

But the gun can't save him. It will take the bone marrow of a stranger, most likely a fellow Korean-American, to save 6-year-old Ho Young's life. And his time is running out.

"Basically, every day is important for this patient," said Dr. Dick Suh, the pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Medical College of Georgia who is treating Ho Young's leukemia. "Our hope is we can keep his leukemia at bay until we find the appropriate donor."

A year ago, it was just the color of his face and fingernails -- a little off, a little yellow -- that bothered his mother, Bunsun.

When he started to run a fever and throw up, she took him to the pediatrician but came home with antibiotics for a sinus infection. On and off, the symptoms persisted for months and the boy went back and forth to the doctor's office.

"He went to school and he's so weak," Mrs. Jeon said. "Then he doesn't want to go to school. He loves school. Then he doesn't want to eat."

Finally, in late January, a blood test showed his red blood cell count was extremely low, and he was transferred to MCG Children's Medical Center, where his blood count registered even lower.

"Very fast it's dropping," Mrs. Jeon said.

But the worst was still to come. The next day, tests confirmed that it was leukemia.

Chemotherapy drove the cancer of the bone marrow into remission in July. And there is hope, Mrs. Jeon said.

"We're so happy it's in remission," she said smiling briefly. "But suddenly, it came back. He is good, he's so happy always. And then it comes back."

Tests earlier this month found leukemia cells. Ho Young apparently has a genetic abnormality called Philadelphia chromosome, Dr. Suh said.

"It's a transcription factor which basically gets out of control and stimulates these leukemic cells to keep reproducing and not respond to chemotherapy," Dr. Suh said. "The best chance for cure at this point would be a bone marrow transplant."

The odds without it are "practically none," he added.

Both parents were tested and Mrs. Jeon matched on four of six tissue proteins needed for a successful transplant, but doctors look for at least five or six to give the patient a better chance, Dr. Suh said.

If the tissue match isn't close, the transplanted immune cells will attack and destroy their new host body, Dr. Suh said.

Because Korea has a "very homogeneous population," matching tissue proteins would most likely be Korean, Dr. Suh said.

Unfortunately, Koreans and other minorities are severely underrepresented in the National Marrow Donor Program, and even a search of the registry in Korea did not turn up a match, Dr. Suh said.

Mrs. Jeon said she had given blood before "but I never thought about leukemia," she said. "Now I think about the other kids with cancer that are sick. I want to donate. My husband wants to donate. Even if I can't help my son."

Her only hope is there is someone else out there like her.

Donor information

If you would like to find out if you could be a potential donor for Ho Young Jeon, you can be tested from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday at the American Red Cross blood drawing station, 106 Pleasant Home Road. Call 868-8800 for an appointment. The body quickly replaces the donated marrow, and the procedure is not painful, said Dr. Dick Suh, of Medical College of Georgia.

Tom Corwin covers science and medicine for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.