By Kristen Bole | December 5, 2011
UCSF and the Cell Technologies business of GE Healthcare Life Sciences have begun a unique collaboration aimed at overcoming the lack of blood-forming stem cells available to patients suffering from life-threatening diseases such as lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia or sickle cell anemia.
The goal of the $841,000, three-year project is to make better use of a rich source of routinely discarded stem cells: umbilical cord blood gathered at the birth of a baby.
Every year, more than 14,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with diseases that have the potential to be treated with a transplant of blood-forming stem cells. These patients need a way to replace their diseased blood cells with healthy ones that can grow and flourish.
For many patients, the best option would be a transplant of stem cells from the bone marrow or blood of a closely matched sibling or family member. But, for at least 70 percent of these patients, no matching family donor is available. Finding unrelated donors whose tissue types match isn’t easy.
As a result, many patients die or become too ill for a transplant. At UCSF, specialists perform about 190 transplants in adults each year and the number is rising, according to Andrew Leavitt, MD, medical director of the UCSF Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant Laboratory. “We are acutely aware of the fact that we have patients who can’t get optimal therapy because we can’t find a matching donor who can provide a transplant,” Leavitt said. “For these patients, it’s a matter of life and death.”
Another potential source is cord blood, the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after the birth of a baby. It is a rich source of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells. After a birth, the umbilical cord and placenta are usually discarded. Many countries are now establishing cord blood banks and associated facilities to allow parents to donate their baby’s cord blood to bring potentially lifesaving treatment to others.
The UCSF/GE Healthcare collaboration will focus on cord blood, which has some key advantages for transplants: It’s loaded with the stem and progenitor cells that make all the other cells in the blood system – including white cells, red cells and platelets. It can be collected easily without causing pain or risk to the donor. And cord blood doesn’t need to match the tissue type of the patient receiving it as closely as bone marrow does.
In recent years, a growing number of patients have received cord-blood transplants. They work wonderfully for many sick children, Leavitt said, but for most adult patients, cord blood simply doesn’t provide a large enough number of stem cells.