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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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Donor cells

Dezmon Cole couldn’t use her own cells for transplant and had no siblings who were a match. So she is on the National Bone Marrow Registry, in search of a donor match.

There are two ways that the stem cells are harvested. One is through one’s own bone marrow or cells, called autologous transplantation. The second major option for adults is allogenic transplantation—from a matching sibling or donor’s cells. Up to 50 percent of stem cell transplants are allogenic. Couriel says, “There is far less toxicity if a patient’s own bone marrow can be used to harvest the stem cells and far fewer complications.”

Couriel says that there’s been an explosion of treatments, including stem cell transplantation, that has prolonged the lives of people living with blood disorders. “With the new drugs and transplants, we are seeing patients are now having healthy survivals that are nine to 10 years out.”

Because of the improved outcomes, more and more stem cell transplants are being done in southeast Michigan, at University of Michigan, the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit and other multidisciplinary treatment centers.

Although the procedure has become safer and is providing an improved quality of life to so many, stem cell transplants do not come without risks or complications.

Personal cells best

“When you are using the patient’s own cells, you are transplanting cells into their own immune system. With a donor, there is always the chance of graft vs. host disease, where the body rejects the transplanted donor cells, “Couriel says. “Fortunately, much of that can be treated with medications and other therapies. A patient can also undergo complications such as low white cell or platelet counts, which are easily treated.

Dr. Joseph Uberti, division chief of hematology and co-director of bone marrow transplants at Karmanos, says physicians have conducted 300 stem cell transplants for cancers of the blood or lymph nodes in 2012, up from 100 in 2004. He attributes the rise to more sophisticated procedures and safety. Uberti says using a person’s own cells is always preferable when possible.

“About 50 percent of the harvesting we do uses a person’s own cells for transplants, but the rest come from siblings or non-related donors through the registry.“

Some 25 percent of donor matches come from siblings. That’s why the national registry is so important in finding other donors.

And about 70 percent of patients in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. Couriel and Uberti agree race and ethnicity are paramount in finding the best stem cell matches.

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