'This is why I'm here': A Detroit Lions VP tries to save her daughter from rare disease

'This is why I'm here': A Detroit Lions VP tries to save her daughter from rare disease

Detroit Lions Senior VP of business development Kelly Kozole works with her daughter, Morgan, who has a rare neurological disorder called beta-propeller protein-associated neurodegeneration, or BPAN. Michael Rothstein

TROY, Mich. — Wearing a white T-shirt with a massive star in sparkling shades of pink, yellow and seafoam green on the front, Morgan Kozole sits in front of a fold-up chalkboard in the living room of her family’s Detroit-area home and starts to draw.

Using pink and yellow chalk, she sketches Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The Disney characters are dominant fixtures in the 5-year-old’s life and therefore become a soundtrack for the Kozole family: Morgan constantly saying “Mickey,” with her long, blond ponytail bouncing to whatever song happens to be playing on the Mickey Mouse Club.

“These are the two Mickeys,” Morgan says, pointing to the chalkboard. Her mother,

Morgan Kozole suffers from BPAN, a rare neurological disorder, but still loves the same things any 5-year-old would, including the iPad and her favorite character, Peppa Pig. Michael Rothstein

“She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at first. One doctor diagnosed her with that, and then another, our neurologist, said she doesn’t have that,” Kelly said. “Then there was speculation but not a full diagnosis she had autism, so we did all the tests for that.

“So through this kind of journey of trying to find out what was wrong, it was exciting that she didn’t have something that you were going to this test for, but you still had so many more questions as you were eliminating all these potential diseases that she could have.”

Befuddled, they began genetic testing and in November 2018 received a letter about a mutation on Morgan’s WDR45 gene. Kelly Googled it, stumbled upon BPAN and freaked out, calling their neurologist. The neurologist told Kelly not to worry — BPAN was very rare, and Morgan didn’t have it.

Doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy because of seizures. Morgan took Keppra, which helped accelerate her vocabulary to about 50 words, typical for a 1-year-old, when she was 3. Then doctors said no, it wasn’t epilepsy either.

Another meeting with another neurologist led to a different diagnosis. Three days after she and Kevin returned to Michigan from Super Bowl LIII in February 2019, they received a call. Doctors figured out what was wrong.

It was BPAN.

“In my mind, it’s worse than cancer,” Kelly said. “How is this even possible? That this can even be so painful for kids later on in life. You try so hard to gain all these abilities, and then early adolescence or early adulthood, it’s just [gone] one day, and I’ve seen a lot of these stories.

“There’s a BPAN Facebook website, and that’s where the doctors sent us. There’s no cure. There’s no therapy. ‘Go to this website.’ That’s what I was told.”

FOR MONTHS KELLY cried, angry and heartbroken. The Kozoles initially told their families and no one else.

In May 2019, Kelly went to her first Neurodegeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation (NBIA) conference. She met other parents, heard their stories and began the new normal.

She used her skills — organization, fundraising and business — to brainstorm ways to help. Hardly anyone researched BPAN. Without it, there would be no chance for a cure — not in Morgan’s lifetime, which could reach her 40s, and not in the lifetime of those who might come after.

She shared what was happening with her boss, Detroit Lions president Rod Wood, and his wife, Susan, using a website link to explain BPAN. Wood knew something was wrong because of texts and emails saying they had to take Morgan to this specialist or that appointment.

“As that was confirmed and became her reality, she is now able to talk about it in a way,” Wood said. “Because she’s full bore on trying to help generate awareness and financial resources to find a cure for it.

“She went from the unknown to the very tragic known to, ‘OK, what are we going to do about it?'”

Kelly consulted her aunts, both of whom worked in medicine. Linda Narhi worked in biotechnology for Amgen for more than 30 years; Dr. Diane Narhi was the first female chief of staff at Simi Valley (California) Hospital. From talking with another group of fundraising BPAN parents — BPAN Warriors — Kelly found a guide.

“Any day, it could be like, ‘Oh, your daughter’s gone.'”

Kelly Kozole, Senior VP of Business Ops, Detroit Lions

If her aunts had not been resources, she might have joined BPAN Warriors. But Kelly admittedly needs to be in control, and this was her daughter. She needed to manage this herself. She created a nonprofit called Don’t Forget Morgan.

Kelly’s aunts provided guidance, and Wood offered contacts he had in the finance industry and Silicon Valley. Wood and Lions general counsel Jay Colvin sit on the board. Other Lions coworkers — with Wood’s blessing — built the website, designed the logo and created social media plans and the first pitch video for Don’t Forget Morgan’s rollout in 2020.

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Progress started with a $15,000 grant to help with a mouse model study at Sanford Research in South Dakota with another, larger, potential grant to come. In recent months, Kelly has focused largely on fundraising, and another parent of a child with BPAN, Christina Mascarenhas Ftikas, has focused on the medical side of the nonprofit.

“This is why I’m here,” Kelly said. “I’m supposed to be a vehicle to get all of this awareness and hopefully a cure for BPAN so the child one, two, three, five years from now, there is hope.

“There is no, ‘Go to Facebook.’ There is something where you can actually give a parent, ‘Here’s the symptoms to look for.'”

ABOUT AN HOUR away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kaci Kegler and her husband, Brian, had been in the same Facebook community. Kelly, new to the group and looking for a nearby connection, wrote Kaci a message.

“Hey, my daughter was just diagnosed, could we connect?”

Kaci understood. She did the same thing, reaching out without success in 2016 after her daughter, Elle, was diagnosed. Kaci wanted to be a resource.

They talked for an hour. There wasn’t much Kaci could say to soothe her. Kelly pinged a year later with another message: I’m starting a non-profit. Kaci offered to help.

Despite suffering from BPAN, Morgan is like any other 5-year-old who enjoys playing with her brother, Connor. Michael Rothstein

Days later, on Feb. 28, Kaci and her husband, Brian, an assistant athletic director for development at the University of Michigan, had their yearly fundraiser for BPAN research on Rare Disease Day at Pizza House in Ann Arbor. They met a doctor who had a connection to researchers at Michigan.

“I literally came home and texted [Kelly] and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we may have inroads,’ ” Kaci said. “We just started texting. I have never met Kelly face-to-face. We still haven’t. But we’ve texted a lot and we’ve emailed quite a bit.

“It just kind of started.”

By summer, they went from nothing to putting pieces in place for a full-fledged research project with a two-year, $140,000 grant for Barmada and Dr. Jason Chua to help start to solve BPAN.

Chua was working on the regulation of autophagy, which is the cleaning out of damaged cells, and studying BPAN became a natural extension of the work he had already been putting in. BPAN alters that in neurons. Barmada said Chua’s research provided a “rare win-win situation” to potentially help with BPAN and other diseases, too.

“There are a set of questions in BPAN that nobody has the answer to,” Barmada said. “And Jason and myself, we just seem to be in the right position, the right place to be able to help out.”

The goal is to understand what is happening within BPAN itself and how people end up with it while also trying to find therapies for existing patients. Within a year, they are hoping to grow stem cells from people with BPAN in their lab, allowing for the creation of their own stem cells missing the WDR45 gene. Then, they will try to either replace the gene or “stimulate autophagy through genetic or pharmacologic means,” Barmada said. The hope is this can prevent neurodegeneration.

So far, they’ve hired a research assistant to work with Chua, developed tools to manipulate the gene using the genome-editing tool CRISPR and applied for approval from Michigan and the institutional review board to get skin biopsies to obtain stem cells from BPAN patients.

It’s a process, but it’s also a start.

The family gathers inside Morgan’s bedroom — complete with a special Haven Bed with a zipper to keep her safe from wandering around at night, when she could accidentally turn on the stove and hurt herself or others as sleep disorders are another BPAN issue. She sits on the floor and starts playing with her small, yellow dollhouse and a fake ice cream maker. Kelly asks for an ice cream. Morgan makes one for herself instead and pretends to eat it.

Later, outside, Morgan kicks a soccer ball and plays a modified game of catch with a squishy football. Football, no surprise, is big. She says “hike” a lot. “She knows that term,” Kevin says, laughing.

In these moments, Morgan seems like any other young child. She attends St. Hugo of the Hills Parish School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, but has a one-on-one para nanny to help. She interacts with people, often overly affectionate.

Sitting at the kitchen table after playtime outside, she plays with Starfall, a children’s learning app, on her iPad. They hope it accelerates her word recognition. Morgan is entranced watching “Farmer in the Dell” and using her hands to eat orange slices and Cheerios. She needs a mirror in front of her to provide her a target for her mouth. She listens to books, another way to try absorbing information.

Morgan can now count to 20 and say three sentences in a row. Kelly and Kevin have tried to give Morgan a normal life in an abnormal situation, but they worry about the future — what she won’t have and won’t be able to experience.

But Morgan has changed some of that outlook, too.

“Focus on how she is so loving and has so much pure joy. A lot of parents of special needs [kids] say you can learn so much from these kids, and you really can,” Kelly said. “She is, every morning, just so happy, and ‘Mama!’ Hugs and kisses to strangers. She has none of those behaviors you learn as an adult where you’re not kind to people or you don’t want to talk to someone.

“She is just open arms, will give you a hug and is so loving, and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really what life is about.'”

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