Instead of cramming for exams and heading to parties with his classmates, Andrew Harris, then a 19-year-old student at Bowling Green State University, was in the hospital receiving a bone marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia.

Harris survived the transplant despite suffering a graft-versus-host disease, the most dangerous complication associated with bone marrow transplants. Now, 10 years later, Harris is working to develop a method to diagnose GVHD in children before symptoms develop, with the help of a $250,000 grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels, a non-profit organization sponsored by Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai dealerships.

“I was the big kid on the children’s floor back in college,” Harris said. “I promised the doctors here that I would come back and work with them if I survived my whole ordeal and it took me 10 years to get back here.”

At a Thursday morning press conference, Harris was awarded the $250,000 check and a new lab coat in the presence of colleagues and pediatric bone marrow transplant patients. Harris said the funding will make a significant difference in his career and childhood cancer research.

“This study is going to lay the groundwork for making bone marrow transplants a safer treatment option for kids around the world,” he said.

According to Valerie Castle, pediatrics and communicable diseases chair at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, less than 3 percent of the National Institutes of Health’s budget goes toward research for childhood cancer, even though it is one of the leading causes of childhood death in the country.

Brian O’Malley, regional general manager at Hyundai Motor America, said the mission of Hyundai Hope on Wheels is to eliminate childhood cancer and emphasize the importance of supporting related research.

The organization originally started as a grassroots effort but grew with support from contributions from the automaker. Since the program was started 14 years ago, Hyundai has donated more than $57 million to pediatric cancer research.

O’Malley added that a contribution is made to the organization for every Hyundai vehicle sold. Harris’s work is one of the 41 projects chosen from 300 applicants to receive a grant ranging from $100,000 to $250,000.

Harris began his project by developing a panel of blood tests to predict whether a child will be affected by GVFD before symptoms are present. This project is set to become a national study at Mott Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Oncology Group, the world’s largest children’s cancer treatment research consortium, beginning in January.

“We’ve got the preliminary groundwork, but now we need all the samples and data from children all around the country so we can make this predictive test,” Harris said.

Daniel Lee, a 23-year-old inpatient and a former LSA student who was six credits short of graduation before his diagnosis, took part in a ceremony at the event yesterday in which pediatric bone marrow transplant patients decorated a Hyundai SUV that will be sold at the Ann Arbor Hyundai dealership on Jackson Road with their handprints.

“You can never have enough money for advances in medical science,” Lee said. “Even right now with all of the advancement in technology, it’s really tough for children going through chemo, nausea is hard on the body.”

Mitchell Dybalski, a 4-year-old neuroblastoma patient, got to put his handprint on the car. Dybalski was diagnosed in July and is one of many children that could benefit from this grant.

“Every penny counts,” Dybalski’s mother, Tracy Dybalski, said. “It’s nice to see big companies coming together and providing the needed funding for childhood cancers.”

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