DENVER -- Elijah Gonzalez would have turned 2 years old Friday, which is why friends and family sang "Happy Birthday" at his funeral.
His death on Jan. 19 came one month after the Lakewood boy was finally able to access an experimental drug to treat his brain tumor. While the drug treatment came too late to save Elijah, his parents haven't given up their fight to help others.
"We decided to donate Elijah's tumor to science because it's very important that the medical physicians have the opportunity to find a cure for ATRT," said Elijah's mother, Lee Gonzalez.
ATRT is the type of brain tumor that took Elijah's life. Even though he has now passed, the tumor cells can survive in a lab. Doctors at Children's Hospital Colorado have a two-to-four week window to aggressively study the tumor before its cells become altered, according to his pediatric oncologist Dr. Jean Mulchay Levy.
"We don’t really have a lot of data for why tumor cells survive therapy. If you look at Elijah, he responded really well to therapy and all the tumor went away, but for some reason, there were cells that survived," Mulchay Levy said.
Now that Mulchay Levy has the tumor that grew back, she hopes to learn why drugs didn't kill all of the Elijah's cancerous cells the first time and what medications might work better on a new tumor that came back with a new genetic code.
"The fact that we have a sample of Elijah’s relapsed tumor will allow us to compare that to how his original tumor responded to our drug screening," said Mulchay Levy. "How his relapsed tumor responded can identify treatments that could work both up front and treat kids who are newly diagnosed or identify therapies that may be effective in kids when they relapse."
Mulchay Levy says none of this research would be possible without the Gonzalezes making one of the kindest decisions at the most difficult moment of their lives.
"Most of our children die at home, and for parents to allow their child to then come back to the hospital to take a sample of those tumors is amazing. They're allowing one of the last things their child does in death is to donate toward the future hope of other children," Mulchay Levy said.
Elijah's father Cesar Gonzalez told the Problem Solvers that the decision was simple: "So we can help other families, other babies, not go through what we went through... give them a chance to live."
FOX31 originally featured Elijah's story in mid-December after his parents went public with their efforts to allow their son to try an experimental cancer drug under the nation's newly passed "Right to Try" law. The measure, signed by President Donald Trump last year, is supposed to make it easier to provide non-FDA approved drugs to those who might otherwise die.
Cesar and Lee told the Problem Solvers their son was the poster child for whom the law was intended, but they were still having no luck getting the pharmaceutical company Epizyme to provide its promising drug Tazemetostat to Elijah.
On the day FOX31 reached out to Epizyme, the pharmaceutical company agreed to make the drug available. Elijah's parents were told it might be too late and their son might not live to Christmas, but he fought until this past Sunday.
Elijah’s celebration of life services will be held at Bear Valley Church in Lakewood on Saturday Jan. 26 at 10:27 a.m., the time he was born.
Elijah's family is asking people to wear the color blue or their best birthday party clothes to honor Elijah. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting contributions to a GoFundMe that has been established to help pay for Elijah's services and a memorial tree.AlertMe