SEATTLE, Wash. -- Bone marrow transplants are often the best therapy for blood cancers like leukemia, but finding a matching donor can be tough. Only 30 percent of family members match, and only two percent of the country is on the national bone marrow donor registry. That's why the potential of umbilical cord blood and its stem cells are the source of much hope.
Alexes Harris was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.
"They told me that initially, I'd have 18-24 months to live if I didn't have treatment and then ultimately a transplant," shared Alexes Harris, leukemia survivor.
No one in her family was a bone marrow match and the two matches on the national registry declined to be donors. Filippo Milano, MD, PhD, Director, Program in Cord Blood Transplantation, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Cancer Center Alliance told her about cord blood and his clinical trial. The odds of finding a donor for minorities like Alexes are lower than they are for caucasians.
Dr. Milano shared, "The main advantage of cord blood is cells come from the baby and the cells are naive. There is no necessary of matching 100 percent between the host and the donor."
Milano says cord blood will work for 95 percent of cases. The downside is cord blood doesn't have many stem cells. It takes twice as long for patients' immune systems to rebuild as it would with a bone marrow transplant. Also, patients need two units, which costs 80 thousand dollars. Dr. Milano's trial increased the number of stem cells in the lab, hoping to cut recovery time by a week.
"Cord blood really proved to be a very good source of stem cells, and we need to make sure that many centers keep doing it," continued Dr. Milano.
Now, Alexes is raising awareness for minorities to get on the bone marrow registry and for cord blood as an option.
"The parents who donated that umbilical cord saved my life, and I just feel like I need to make ... I need to make my cancer matter," stated Alexes.
Dr. Milano says leukemia patients who get cord blood seem to have fewer relapses. He sees great potential for cord blood for blood cancers, and maybe regenerative medicine.