Health Team

Cord blood can be used to treat adult leukemia

Posted August 21, 2008

— For the past 20 years, cord blood stem cell transplants have been used to treat leukemia and other blood diseases.

Cord blood is most often used in children because the blood comes from the umbilical cord, which holds a limited quantity, according to the National Marrow Donor Program. Cord blood also doesn't have to be as close a blood or tissue match as bone marrow does.

Duke University Medical Center is a pioneer in cord blood stem cell transplants. Doctors have worked mainly with children, but not entirely.

Gayle Searls is proof the treatment can be used in adults as well. Twelve years ago, Searls was Duke’s first adult cord blood transplant patient.

In 1996, Searls began feeling unusual fatigue. She would bruise easily, and her lymph nodes were swelling.

“I was literally at work that day and in the hospital that night with leukemia,” Searls said.

Searls was diagnosed with acute lymphacytic leukemia that required a matching bone marrow donor, but none could be found.

At the time, doctors at Duke were just learning how to use the blood transplant and figuring out who it would best work for, said Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, director of the Stem Cell Program at Duke.

Only 14 percent of donor units have enough cells to treat an adult, Kurtzberg said. Chemotherapy and radiation kill bone marrow, which allows the new stem cells to work.

“The transplant actually rescues the bone marrow after the therapy kills it,” Kurtzberg said.

After seven weeks in the hospital, Searls went home. A month later, she was off all medication and has stayed that way.

“I would have died if I had not had the stem cells – the cord blood stem cells,” Searls said.

Searls now works at Carolina's Cord Blood Bank – the source of her cure.

“She really is an example that cord blood can help adults,” Kurtzberg said.

Besides treating blood diseases, doctors have learned that stem cells from umbilical cord blood also help repair tissue damage in several organs like the heart. Researchers are trying to better understand how that happens.


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  • davida6 Aug 26, 2008


    I think it is already clear that stem cells from umbilical cord blood are clearly beneficial to many patients (as an example, the National Marrow Donor Program facilitated 600 transplants in 2007) and the number of patients and diseases benefitting will only increase. The expansion of research into other cells from the placenta or umbilical cord does hold great promise because of the wide availability of these tissues. There is much more information at Getting into the donor database is easier than ever.

  • ncsue0514 Aug 25, 2008

    Scientist & David...

    Bottom line: Duke, along with and other top-flight medical centers, has shown that stem cells have curative potential for a variety of disorders in both children and adults. There are ethical issues to be addressed regarding the use of embryonic stem cells, but using stem cells obtained from the placenta of women who consent to this is one way to tap into a resource that would otherwise serve no benefit.

    We must continue to conduct clinical research into the value of this therapy. Without rigorous research, we cannot conclusively state that there is a clear benefit to use of umbilical cord blood to treat disease. Without financial support from the government and from other sources, this research cannot be conducted, and statements as to the efficacy of UCB transplants cannot be substantiated.

  • scientistjo Aug 25, 2008

    I'm not saying we have to use them for human injection to cure disease. To more fully understand and appreciate disease and life in general, it is necessary to have a complete understanding of our makeup. This is not done by companies, this is done by primary researchers! Right now, it IS NOT easy to get this funding, and it is expensive to do the research. I think one of those vials you're talking about is around $5,000. Then the researcher has to PASSAGE them. Contamination and genetic drift will happen.
    Obtaining hES cells is not hard. There are thousands thrown out all the time that are frozen in storage at fertility clinics.
    Of course I've read the literature! These groups overexpressed a few genes in skin cells and formed pluripotent cells. I can overexpress certain genes, say ras, in normal cells and make them become tumorigenic. Does that mean I made cancer? Not really.

  • davida6 Aug 25, 2008

    scientistjo, response part 2: a) The cell lines available from the government are not old, they were frozen at a very early passage number in many small tubes, b) The cells are available from the NIH at a great price. c) we have funded human ESC research to the tune of millions of dollars a year despite not having a single treatment in human clinical trials. d) if hESC research was the panacea to the world's ills, why is so little private research being spent on it? The answer is that companies' know hESC research won't lead to viable treatments. Human ES cells have four major problems, 1) they have a tendency to form dangerous teratomas; 2) they are not patient-specific so they will require immune suppression in any therapies - bad idea if teratomas are possible 3) they require hard-to-acquire donor eggs which is a risk to women and expensive 4) the destruction of embryos raises ethical concerns and significant opposition, even from some Democrats.

  • davida6 Aug 25, 2008

    scientistjo, response part 1: the gold standard for proving pluripotency of mouse stem cells is to insert them into mouse embryos, implant the embryos in a surrogate, deliver the pups, sac the mice, and analyze tissues from each major cell type (endo, ecto and mesoderm) to look for chimerism. This was successful with murine induced pluripotent stem cells. For human cells you can read as well as I can the 2008 articles in extremely high profile peer-reviewed journals (Cell, Science, PNAS etc) what evidence they used to prove pluripotency. The fact that so many labs repeated and progressed the field in such a short time is stunning.

  • scientistjo Aug 25, 2008

    One CANNOT, with absolute certainty, prove that those skin cells that were overexpressing a few ES cell genes were actually converted to ES cells. I'd like to see gene expression microarray data showing that not a single gene is different between the former skin cells and ES cells. Also, do they stay ES cells forever?

    As for the "available" cell lines. They are expensive. They havce been around for a long time--possibly leading to genetic changes. New lines are needed, as is a new President of the USA! Government funding is also needed--this provides the most $$ to researchers. We will not be a leader in the world of molecular biology (and discovering cures to many diseases)unless we FULLY fund human ES cell research.

  • davida6 Aug 25, 2008

    scientistjo, human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is still legal and has no specific legal limitations. Indeed hESC research is being pursued in various private companies. Additionally, the NIH provides access and funding for 21 hESC lines. In 2001 President Bush made these hESC lines available for federal funding for the first time ever. This has resulted in tens of millions of dollars of funding in the years since then. Scientists have merely discovered a far more efficient way of generating pluripotent stem cells. No eggs, sperm, or embryos needed. Just a skin biopsy or a wisdom tooth. Scientists have verified with certainty that mouse induced pluripotent stem cells are indeed pluripotent, just like embryonic stem cells. Scientists have also reported in the top scientific journals that the human versions meet all the criteria available for pluripotency of human stem cells. Still, all the proven human therapies and all the clinical trials are with adult stem cells.

  • scientistjo Aug 25, 2008

    I'm well aware of both points you brought up. However, how can we really say that those skin cells that have been made "pluripotent" are really embryonic stem cells, if we're not allowed to study ES cells? It's the equivalent of having never really seen an apple, studying and orange and saying, "it's an apple!".

  • davida6 Aug 25, 2008

    To scientistjo,

    If you are a scientist, you already know that the treatment described in this article is fully supported by both Democrats and Republicans because it does not involve human embryonic stem cells. It involves umbilical cord blood stem cells, a non-controversial source of stem cells. Therapies based on these post-natal stem cells and many other non-controversial adult sources have led to the successful treatment in human patients with over 70 diseases and conditions. Research from such sources are generously funded by our governments (federal and many states). More recently, labs from all over the world have had success with induced pluripotent stem cells. These are adult cells from skin or teeth that have been engineered to become pluripotent, the only current source of human patient-specific pluripotent stem cells. These non-controversial cells have already begun to displace human embryonic stem cells in research labs. Check out

  • scientistjo Aug 21, 2008

    I wouldn't cure any Republicans with stem cell treatments. Why should they benefit from something they oppose? It's only wrong until it affects them or their family.