Jim Danhakl had no way of knowing what his future would hold when he stepped out of bed one morning in the summer of 2009. As the 51–year-old Californian got dressed, he noticed an odd tingling sensation in the toes of both of his feet. Jim, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot had always been active and healthy, so he attributed the sensation to a recently completed marathon. Even when the tingling turned to numbness and inched up his feet, he remained unconcerned. It was not until two weeks later when the sensations spread to his hands that Jim became worried and contacted a doctor.
Jim was eventually diagnosed with a rare and malignant form of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), which is an autoimmune disease that attacks the peripheral nervous system. There is no cure and only limited treatment for CIDP. Over the next five months, Jim’s condition dramatically worsened. He could no longer walk and could stand only with the assistance of others. He had lost much of his sense of taste, had double vision, could not hold a glass, had difficulty swallowing, and was in almost constant pain. Jim tried conventional therapy, which included aggressive regimens of steroids, immune suppressants, and chemotherapy. None of which had any impact on the disease’s relentless progression.
Then, when hope was beginning to fade, Jim stumbled upon an online support group discussing a stem cell transplant clinical trial being conducted at Northwestern University under Richard Burt, M.D. Jim contacted Dr. Burt and, because of the urgency of his condition, was fast tracked into the clinical trial. The stem cell transplant typically runs seven weeks. The idea is to “reboot” the immune system by first harvesting the adult blood stem cells and then destroying the defective immune system with chemotherapy. These cells are then reintroduced to regrow a new immune system, genetically identical to the original, but without the bad habits it learned in its “previous” life. The process worked. Within weeks, Jim was taking his first steps again. Today, more than three years later, he has regained nearly all of his normal activities and is once again leading a full and complete life.