Umbilical Cords Get a New Life

If a patient gets leukemia, a bone marrow transplant used to be the only solution-and a good donor match can be hard to find. But doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center are saving lives using body parts that would normally be thrown away. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez has the story.

Steven Gonzalez didn't realize how sick he was, until a camping trip 2 years ago when he woke up with a swollen face.  Steven and his parents discovered he had leukemia.  His immune system was attacking his own body, and the only cure was to find a bone marrow donor. Steven's parents searched the National Bone Marrow Database, but they just couldn't find a match.  Steven was 11 at the time.

"It's like in a sports game or baseball game, and they're running around the bases, and they're almost there, and then they get out? And so it's like, getting your hopes up, and then it fails, and you're like, aw."

That's when doctors told his parents about another treatment: they could give Steven blood stem cells from donated umbilical cords.  Umbilical cords contain adaptable new cells, and so they could give Steven a new immune system.

"This is our clinical lab where we process stem cell products…"

Dr. Elizabeth Shpall is the Director of the Cord Blood Bank at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which does more blood stem cell transplants than any other hospital in the country. One of the advantages of umbilical cords is that they are incredibly easy to collect from delivery rooms:

"We usually get anywhere from 4-18 cords a day from our various collaborators in Houston. The cords come in — these are from normal donors — from healthy women who have agreed to donate to the public bank…"

In fact, if researchers didn't collect them, umbilical cords would just get thrown away.

"It's a waste product."

For Steven Gonzalez, umbilical cord cells were also the only option because he's Hispanic. Bone marrow matches are ethnic specific, but there are very few Hispanics, or other minorities, in the bone marrow database. But umbilical cord cells don't have to be as good a match, and it's easier to find donors from minority populations.  Here's Dr. Shpall:

"The beauty of the cord blood is that we are now specifically targeting minority populations throughout the United States, throughout the world. It's fantastic, because now when we have Hispanic patients. We often find a cord…and so we're serving an important unmet need"

After much chemotherapy, a quick transplant, months of isolation and two years of recovery, Steven Gonzalez is back to normal. But he will never meet the two moms, and their babies, who donated umbilical cord cells for his recovery.  Steven's mom Rosie Gonzalez is just happy for what they have.

"In our case, these came from stem cells that would have literally been in the trash. And they're stem cells that saved my child's life. And there's two little girls walking around out there that don't even realize that they saved his life, and I wish I could meet them, but I can't"

So the only thing that Rosie Gonzalez can do is encourage as many people as possible to donate.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez