March 04, 2015

Aplastic anemia is a sometimes-severe autoimmune disease that inhibits the stem cells in bone marrow from regenerating enough new, mature blood cells. This leads to a person’s deficiency of red (oxygen carrying) and white (infection fighting) blood cells and blood platelets (clotting ability). This deficiency often causes the patient to experience incapacitating symptoms that include extreme fatigue, frequent headaches, unexplained bruising or bleeding, dizziness, and difficulty fighting off infections. It is a rare disease, with usually less than 600 new cases reported in the United States each year.

The diagnosis can be debilitating in some cases, often requiring frequent hospital visits, loss of work and school days, and causing feelings of social separation due to the recurrent treatments needed. Untreated, aplastic anemia leads to death in most patients. Management of this disease includes daily immune-suppressive and growth-inducing drugs, blood transfusions and stem cell transplants, for severe cases. The stem cells for the transplants are typically harvested from a bone marrow donor or, if available, umbilical cord blood. Cord blood banking has allowed more families to have immediate access to genetically matched stem cells for this type of treatment.

What happens though, if a patient does not have their stem cells stored at a cord blood bank or if they cannot find a matching bone marrow donor? Will that person not have the opportunity to receive a potentially life-saving stem cell transplant? This is a reality some patients have faced, especially those with a diverse or ethnic minority background. Minorities and those with a mixed or diverse racial background have more difficulty finding a matching stem cell donor. This exact situation is what 11-year-old Washington state resident Kyra Diaz faced recently. After numerous failed drug and transfusion treatments stopped working to improve her aplastic anemia, doctors decided to try a stem cell transplant. But they hit a road block because Kyra, who is Filipino, could not find a matching stem cell donor. Her sister, who was the most likely of candidates, was not a compatible match either. Also, the Diazes did not store either daughters’ cord blood in a cord blood bank at birth.

Faced with a lack of options, the Diaz family was feeling despair and not sure where to turn to get their daughter the help she needed. But that changed when they met a medical researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who was working on an innovative new umbilical cord blood transplant technique. After obtaining permission from the FDA to begin a single-patient clinical trial1 with Kyra, they proceeded and were successful. The technique involved taking partially-matching allogeneic cord blood and expanding the number of stem cells in a lab. The cells were then transplanted into Kyra. After a week, the cells began to engraft, and she is now off of all her previous immunosuppressive drugs – which she and her family consider to be a miracle.

Her story is a testament to how stem cell research involving umbilical cord blood is providing wonderful outcomes for patients who may not have had prior treatment options. Cord blood banking allows families greater access to matching stem cells to be used in a vast range of medical treatments. Just like the Diaz family, no one knows if or when a child will be diagnosed with a life-changing disease or illness. By choosing cord blood banking for all the children in your family, you are providing protection and helping to ensure their healthy medical future.

  • Sheldon, Ellie. It Made Me More Grateful. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Published online Jan. 5, 2015. Found online
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