Louisville teen fighting third cancer battle

Louisville teen tries new drug, gets 2nd bone marrow transplant to battle leukemia

CINCINNATI, OH (WAVE) - For the last three years, WAVE 3 News has followed Elizabethtown teenager Matthew Walker’s story.

WAVE 3 News aired the moment when he received his bone marrow transplant, and when he met his donor for the first time.

But recently, Matthew learned the cancer was back. He is now trying a new cancer-fighting drug, never tried on a teen with his kind of leukemia before.

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WAVE 3 News traveled to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where Walker is receiving treatment.

At 15 years old, Matthew loved playing paintball, an activity that was a little sweeter after beating cancer twice.

“After his bone marrow transplant, we had a good two years,” his father, Dion Walker, told WAVE 3 News. “I mean, for two years Matthew was a normal teen.”

But just a few months later, Matthew would end up getting devastating test results.

“We’ve been at this for a while, and we knew,” Dion said. “I mean it was like a gut punch.”

Matthew’s mixed phenotype acute leukemia was back for a third time. The cancer is only 3 percent of all leukemia cases.

“Maybe it’s best to think of it as not just type, it actually has two coats to it,” Dr. Michael Absalon, one of Matthew’s pediatric oncologists, said. “It can behave in different ways.”

After Billy donated bone marrow to Matthew, the two have a close bond. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
After Billy donated bone marrow to Matthew, the two have a close bond. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

After the second battle, Matthew had a bone marrow transplant. The donor was a college student named Billy Santoro. He’s a triplet, a fact that would later play out in the most unexpected way.

After the transplant, Billy and Matthew became instant family. In January, Billy was devastated when he heard the news.

“'I can be there in four hours,'” Dion recalled Billy telling him. “'We are doing another bone marrow transplant; let’s do this.'”

But first, Matthew’s cancer had to be brought into remission at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This time, doctors used a new drug which works in two ways. It’s packaged into nano particles that get into leukemia cells differently.

Then, another drug is added on top of that, which encourages the cancer cells to self-destruct.

“We have some physicians here that we call Jedi Knights, because they brought us from a time when nobody was cured with leukemia to a time where almost 90 percent of people can be cured,” Absalon said.

His doctors started getting things ready for that second transplant, with Billy as the natural go-to donor.

They also started searching for a backup, just in case.

That’s when Billy got some news from his twin brother, Joe.

“He gets a phone call from his brother saying, ‘I just got a phone call from Be the Match saying I’m a match for a 15-year-old boy with leukemia,'" Dion said. "He said, ‘I’m donating.’”

The Walkers thought the brothers were helping yet another family. But then things got a little strange.

“Billy is told April 22, 23 and then Joe is told April 22, April 23,” Dion said. “So we were like wait a minute. Those are all the same dates.”

Matthew Walker poses with his two bone marrow donors: twins Joe and Billy Santoro. (Source: Family photo)
Matthew Walker poses with his two bone marrow donors: twins Joe and Billy Santoro. (Source: Family photo)

Turns out that of the millions of people in a bone marrow registry, Matthew’s better match this time around was Billy’s twin brother, Joe.

The doctors who found Joe had no idea Billy had previously donated to Matthew, too.

“He teases his brother, Billy, he’s like, ‘You know, he’s getting the better of the cells, Santoro 2.0,’” Dion laughed.

Then, on April 22, Matthew got a third chance at life, thanks to Joe’s bone marrow donation. The life-saving cells slowly entered Matthew, changing his DNA once again.

“When we’re all finished with this, we hope that you wouldn’t notice that Matthew’s been through all this stuff unless he bothered to tell you about it,” Absalon said.

Matthew does have a difficult road ahead as his body adjusts. He’ll remain at the hospital until July.

But now he does have something to celebrate, other than his 16th birthday, which he celebrated just days after the transplant.

His parents and his two bonus brothers are celebrating, too.

“The whole family is optimistic that this is going to go well and we’ll get Matthew back once again,” Dion said.

Matthew’s father said he hopes his son’s brand new treatment will help pave the way for other children battling cancer.

So far, Matthew is responding well to the transplant.

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