Saving Ryan: A dramatic tale of hope, persistence, and medical ingenuity

Ryan Dant and his father Mark
Ryan Dant celebrates with his parents before his graduation ceremony May 13, 2017, at the University of Louisville. Photo courtesy of University of Louisville..

DALLAS – May 12, 2017 – Ryan Dant was afraid. He knew he likely wouldn’t live to see his 11th birthday due to a virulent disease that would stiffen his limbs, attack his heart, and destroy his brain.

“What’s it going to be like when I die?” his father, Mark, recalls being asked one night as he tucked his son into bed.

Diagnosed at age 3 with mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS) – a deadly condition that had no known treatment – he and his family embarked on a desperate mission to save his life, all the while watching his body and brain steadily deteriorate.

In a perpetual race against time, Ryan went from just beyond death’s grip to a lifesaving treatment that has now brought him to the pinnacle of his dreams: a college degree and a future he once believed was not possible.

Saving Ryan

Five years after UT Southwestern Medical Center began a compassionate-use clinical trial that restored much of his brain function, the 29-year-old is a medical marvel whose success story gives hope to others facing similar plights.

“I feel more confident; I can do things without fear of failure,” said Ryan, who graduates in May from the University of Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in sports administration. “I’ve been successful in the classroom, which means I can now be successful in life.”

Without intervention, Ryan would have succumbed to severe brain damage like so many other MPS patients before him, said Dr. Elizabeth Maher, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics with UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.

spinal injection on a patient
Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center perform a spinal injection on Ryan Dant to help special enzymes reach his brain. The team did the first injection in 2012, hoping the treatment would stop Ryan’s cognitive decline. A study published earlier this year shows the treatment worked better than expected: Ryan’s brain not only stabilized; it improved.

“It’s an incredible story that shows us there is so much recovery that can go on in the brain. Ryan will be forever my grounding to the idea that sometimes you must get out on the leading edge and take a chance,” said Dr. Maher, who authored a study published this year that documents his cognitive recovery.

Deadly Diagnosis

Mark and Jeanne Dant were raising a happy, intelligent child in the late 1980s. Ryan’s growth was normal in his first few years, his body coordination was on par, and his vocabulary was expanding just like most children his age.

Then in 1991, a liver issue brought Ryan to UT Southwestern where doctors noticed his body was not properly breaking down proteins that build bone, tendons, and other tissue.

They diagnosed him with MPS1, a subset of the disease in which the buildup of these proteins overtakes cells and eventually leads to stunted growth, stiffening and curling of limbs, deafness, heart disease, breathing problems, and mental deterioration.

Ryan Dant at age 3
Ryan Dant was diagnosed at age 3 with MPS, a deadly disease that leads to stunted growth, heart disease and mental deterioration. Ryan wasn’t expected to live beyond age 10.

Ryan wasn’t expected to live beyond age 10.

His father took the news hard but resolved to educate himself on the disease and find answers. He traveled to a conference in Denver where he met other families dealing with MPS1. There he saw a harsh reality: children in the latter stages of the disease, dying, none older than 12.

Even more discouraging, he discovered that research on the rare disease was limited and a substantial amount of funds was needed to further the work.

“But I wasn’t going to let him die,” Mark Dant said.

Rescued with Research

Working fulltime as a police officer in the suburban Dallas community of Carrollton, Mark Dant spent his nights and weekends knocking on doors, and meeting with neighbors and businesses to raise funds for MPS research.

The effort started slowly, with a local bake sale raising $342 for the Dant family’s newly created Ryan Foundation. He continued getting the word out over the next few years, eventually raising more than $1 million by convincing corporations and even golf tournaments to support research.

But Ryan’s condition was worsening. By age 7, he was passing out from severe headaches, had difficulty breathing, and his fingers had curled so much that he was forced to quit his favorite sport of baseball because he couldn’t hold the bat.

Ryan Dant poses with baseball legend
Ryan Dant poses with baseball legend Nolan Ryan sometime after being diagnosed with the deadly MPS disease.

On weekends, while other children were playing Little League, Mark Dant was driving Ryan to the physical therapist – taking a longer route just to avoid him seeing the baseball fields.

“From a selfish perspective, I didn’t want to see it, either,” Mark Dant said.

In 1998, shortly before his 10th birthday, Ryan boarded a plane to join a group of 10 children participating in clinical trials at UCLA to test a promising synthetic enzyme that his father’s fundraising helped bring beyond the lab.

The patients showed improvement under the treatment, which was administered into the bloodstream and broke down the proteins that had been building up in the cells. Ryan’s fingers and limbs gradually uncurled and loosened, his breathing became easier, and by age 12 he resumed playing the sport he loved.

But Ryan’s fight against MPS was far from over.

Deteriorating Brain

A couple years into high school, Ryan’s grades began to suffer. He studied for hours but remembered little to nothing the next day.

Annual cognitive tests he had been taking since childhood confirmed Ryan’s brain was in dangerous decline.

Doctors discovered the enzyme treatments were not reaching his brain, and the buildup of the glycosaminoglycan molecules had been causing his cognitive function to deteriorate. He would eventually become severely mentally disabled.

The news devastated Ryan.

“We were all upset. We didn’t have any other options,” Ryan said.

Discovering Hope

Ryan posted a note on social media “about a door being closed,” said Sarah McNeil, a research nurse at UT Southwestern who had been involved in Ryan’s treatments during the initial trial. She shared his story with Dr. Maher, Director of UT Southwestern’s translational research program in Neuro-Oncology, part of the Annette G. Strauss Center for Neuro-Oncology.

Dr. Elizabeth Maher and Ryan
Dr. Elizabeth Maher of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas agrees to admit Ryan Dant for a compassionate-use trial to test whether a spinal injection of special enzymes could stop Ryan’s cognitive decline. She hoped it could be a significant step in establishing a new treatment option for other MPS patients.

Dr. Maher initiated the process to get a compassionate-use trial approved, based on the earlier protocol. But her team wasn’t sure it would work because Ryan’s spinal canal was severely narrowed from the proteins clogging it up and lacked a clear path for the treatment to reach the brain. The hope was that repeated injections of the enzyme into the spinal fluid would unclog the canal.

“We felt like Ryan was at a point in his life where we really needed to try,” Ms. McNeil said.

Restoring IQ

Ryan’s first spinal injection was performed in 2012 by Dr. Edward Stehel, Assistant Professor of Radiology, part of the O’Donnell Brain Institute and the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Maher and the team hoped it could be a significant step in establishing a new treatment option for other MPS patients facing cognitive decline.

Ryan started with a light academic load at a Dallas-area junior college.

The effects came slowly, too subtle to notice at first but all pointing toward one conclusion when put together over a couple years of cognitive testing: Ryan was getting smarter.

He started remembering what he studied, earning A’s and B’s, and improved enough to transfer to the University of Louisville, where he also served as equipment manager for the football team.

“We had only hoped to stop the neurocognitive decline, but as the enzyme worked to break down the proteins, Ryan got better. This stunning result is giving us a roadmap to how we can think about other diseases in the brain. Ryan’s journey will impact the lives of countless other children,” said Dr. Maher, a medical oncologist with the Simmons Cancer Center who holds the Theodore H. Strauss Professorship in Neuro‐Oncology. 

Dream Come True

Ryan has lived long beyond the life expectancy of MPS patients, one of only four survivors of the 10 initial clinical trial participants.

He has helped demonstrate a treatment method that could save more lives, and has set an academic standard that gives others hope for bright futures.

Ryan has a girlfriend. He is a University of Louisville graduate. And he’s looking forward to pursuing a career in sports administration, perhaps one day working in operations for a Major League Baseball team – “any team that will allow me to work for them,” he said.

Mark Dant still tears up when talking about his son’s battle to live. Watching him not only survive the disease but walk across the stage to receive a college degree is more than he could have hoped for when he started the long-shot journey to save Ryan’s life.

“Sarah (McNeil) could have said they don’t do experimental MPS treatments here. Dr. Maher could have said that it’s a really great story; they should go find someone to do that treatment,” he said. “But they gave it a shot, and look at where we’re at today. It was worth the try.”

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The faculty of more than 2,700 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, 600,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.

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Media Contact: James Beltran
214-648-3404
James.Beltran@utsouthwestern.edu

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