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Triangle Leading the Way in Life-Saving Cord Blood Transplants

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DURHAM — Doctors are getting closer and closer to curing cancer and correcting genetic diseases. By using cells from a baby's umbilical cord blood, healthy cells replace damaged cells.

More of these life-saving transplants are done in the Triangle than anywhere else in the world.

Nine-year-old Christopher Secord has had leukemia for most of his life. He has been in remission for several years, but he is about to go through a procedure that could cure him for good. It is called a cord blood transplant.

Eleven years ago, doctors discovered cells can be taken from the blood in a newborn baby's umbilical cord and transplanted to grow healthy blood cells in someone else.

There's no risk to the baby donors or their mother.

"So it's [a] very nice kind of recycling because you're using something that's life-saving but otherwise would have been discarded," says Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg ofDuke University Medical Center.

Kurtzberg has done 189 cord blood transplants; more than anywhere else in the world.

Within 20 minutes of birth, the blood is taken from the umbilical cord, processed and frozen for up to 10 years.

The goal of a cord blood transplant is the same as a bone marrow transplant -- all the unhealthy cells are killed off, then replaced with healthy cells.

The differences? Cord blood is younger and more tolerant so it can be a partial match, whereas bone marrow has to be a full match.

A cord blood transplant isn't painful to the donor or the recipient. It is like a blood transfusion. And doctors can take just a small amount of cord blood, about 2 to 5 ounces, compared to a liter of bone marrow.

"The cord blood has provided a whole new source of donors for these people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to have the treatment," says Kurtzberg.

A disadvantage of using cord blood is that it grows the healthy cells more slowly than bone marrow. Research now underway hopes to speed up the four week process to just two weeks.

"Since those are two very important weeks where the risk of infection is high, we're looking at ways to make those cells grow back faster," says Kurtzberg.

So kids like Christopher can get back to being kids again much faster.

So far, cord blood transplants have been successful 60 percent of the time. Depending on the disease, the success rate can be even higher.

Dr. Kurtzberg believes we'll see more of these transplants in the next millennium, especially for genetic diseases involving the blood.

Using cord blood also appears to have fewer complications than bone marrow transplants.

Duke is one of four cord blood banks in the country.


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