Miracle Story: Donor Umbilical Cord Stem Cells Rescued Girl with Leukemia

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An eleven year old Washington kid, Jenna was diagnosed with high risk leukemia in 2013 that changed her life forever. She underwent chemotherapy and doctors suggested bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia. It was difficult to find a transplant donor among her family as she was adopted and the possibility of finding a non related donor from public stem cell registry was also limited as she was a non-Caucasian. Thus, the chance of finding a bone marrow match was low for Jenna.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia

After trying for weeks, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center decided to use umbilical cord stem cells from a donor to treat her condition, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). It is a form of cancer, characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal WBCs which gets accumulated in the bone marrow, thereby affecting the normal production of blood cells. Usually, patients are treated with chemotherapy followed by bone marrow transplant but in the recent years, chemotherapy combined with umbilical cord blood transfusion has become a popular treatment option for AML.

Why Umbilical Cord Transplant is a Better Option?

  • ccording to Dr. Colleen Delany, the director of cord blood transplant program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, it is efficient to use cord blood transplant for the treatment of children as they are smaller and do not need more amount of stem cells when compared to adults.
  • It is also easier to find a donor as there aren’t many markers required to match for a successful transplant.

    umbilical cord stem cells are naïve and uneducated which makes them more tolerable to be in a new environment (host).

  • During transplants, the host body tends to reject the newly transplanted cells, called graft vs host issue but cord blood transplant possess a lower risk of rejection as they are immunologically immature. “It’s (cord blood) been inside the protection of the mother… immune system that comes with those cells, it hasn’t had to fight anything”, Delany added.
  • It is possible to use cord blood from 2 donors at the same time to treat the patients. This will lower the time it takes to form a protective immunity. Delany and team tried this process in other patients and found that the statistical outcome of both the bone marrow and cord blood transplants are the same.

How Jenna was treated for AML?

Delany and team found a donor umbilical cord blood match for Jenna and prepped her for treatment. Initially, Jenna underwent radiation and 3 rounds of chemotherapy to destroy the cancer cells. They purposely weakened her immune system in order to freshly restart it from the scratch using cord blood transplant. She had a minor graft vs host issue which was not risky compared to other leukemia patients.

Although, she has to take hormonal therapy and other treatments, Jenna has been free of cancer for 2 years now. Her mother said, “She (Jenna) was singing and dancing every single day; after the transplant she did amazing”. Umbilical cord stem cells hold the key to treat various blood related medical conditions and change the lives of many.


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