July 11, 2014

Leukemia is a form of cancer in the blood. It is among the most common childhood cancers in children and more than 50,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is also the sixth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

But it is treatable and curable. One treatment currently being used is a stem cell transplant using stored umbilical cord blood. Leukemia is one of more than 80 diseases that can be treated or cured with a cord blood stem cell transplant.

The leukemia is actually treated using chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. The patient receives high-dose chemotherapy and sometimes also radiation treatment to the entire body, while vital organs including the heart, lungs and liver are shielded. This is done to destroy all the cancer cells throughout the entire body, but, unfortunately, it destroys the healthy cells as well.

That is where cord blood-derived stem cells come into the picture. After the high levels of chemotherapy are used to kill the cancer cells, an infusion of healthy umbilical cord stem cells is injected into the body to help stimulate the growth of new, healthy bone marrow cells. Over the next several weeks, the cord blood stem cells will become part of the new bone marrow and, by dividing and multiplying, promote new red and white blood cell growth. This is done in conjunction with antibiotics to prevent infection, and other medicines and nutritional supplements to help promote the growth of the new healthy cells.

There are two types of stem cell transplants, either allogeneic, coming from someone else, usually a close relative, or autologous, using your own cells, for example, stored umbilical cord blood cells.

For this type of treatment for leukemia, NOT using your own blood is actually preferred. This is because leukemia is a disease of the blood and bone marrow, and by receiving your own blood back, you could run the risk of developing the disease again if leukemia cells are present. If one does use their own stem cells, however, every precaution is taken through a process called purging to ensure that the cancer cells are separated and destroyed prior to transplant.

One instance where it would be favorable to use one’s own stem cells in a reinfusion would be when a patient has received treatment and is currently in remission, and if there are no other matching donors available. This is where storing your baby’s cord blood could be vital and lifesaving. One way to safeguard the chances that there will always be an available matching donor would be to store the cord blood of all the babies born in a family.

A cord blood stem cell transplant for leukemia is a complex procedure but one that is making strides in the cancer treatment community. Patients who receive a successful transplant have a much lower chance of remission and, for many, a cure.

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