The Stem Cell Solution
Could these tiny building blocks of our bodies be the key to increasing cancer survival rates in Blacks? New transplant treatments offer hope.
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When Dezmon Cole, 42, went for her annual physical in October of 2012, she wasn’t expecting the call that changed her life.
“My doctor called and asked me how I was feeling, because my blood work showed that something was seriously wrong,” says Cole, recounting her doctor asking her about feeling tired. She was, but associated it with being a busy working mom with two girls.
“The doctor said that looking at my low blood counts, she didn’t know how I was making it at all.” A few days later, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Cole is one of nearly 100,000 individuals who are diagnosed with a life-threatening disorder of the blood or lymph nodes as the primary site, unlike cancers that spread to the blood or lymph nodes.
New stem cell transplants are offering promise, hope and prolonged life.
“Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who recently returned to the show after several months’ absence, was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome—a disorder where bone marrow produces too few functioning red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets—and got a transplant with bone marrow from her sister last fall.
While stem cell transplants are beginning to show hope for diseases like sickle cell disease, heart disease and muscular dystrophy, Dr. Daniel Couriel, director of the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says changes and improvements in transplantation for blood cancers and disorders in the past 20 years have really given significant help and hope to thousands of people who had a poor prognosis after diagnosis.
In stem cell treatment, patients receive high doses of chemotherapy and radiation before the stem cell transplant. It is only after the chemo has cleared the blood that the transplant is done. Cole recently underwent her first round of chemotherapy and will continue treatments until her transplant.
For blood disorders, such as the many types of leukemia and Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stem cells are an option after chemo and sometimes radiation.
“Surprising to most people, the transplant is done through a regular transfusion. The cells know how to home themselves in the bone to begin making healthy cells, platelets and blood in about 10 to 14 days,” Couriel says. In about 30 to 40 days, the patient really starts to feel better and can resume most activities in about six months.
Stem cells are part of the first course of therapy for people diagnosed with multiple myeloma. African Americans have an incidence of multiple myeloma at a rate that is twice as high as that for Caucasians, Couriel says. “This is significant because they are also 50 percent less likely to actually have a stem cell transplant than their White counterparts,” Couriel says. “I am not sure why there is this disparity in terms of actual transplantations. It could be access or it could be cost.”
But he adds that in terms of outcomes, Blacks do as well as Whites.
While stem cells can be a cure for people with leukemia or lymphoma, the transplants are not a cure for multiple myeloma patients.
"You don’t see a cure, but you raise the chance for a complete remission."