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High-Risk Procedure Pays Off for Leukemia Patient

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Thankfully, DeVine was in that fortunate one-third. Laughlin saw the first signs of cell recovery in him about 10 days after transplant, earlier than in most patients. His energy level remained low for almost two years after transplant, but after one year, he returned to a full work week.

"I feel great," says DeVine, who now works fulltime as a technical recruiter for Synova Inc., in Detroit, and often travels back to his native Vail to enjoy skiing and snowboarding. "I think cord blood is the direction transplants are going."

Laughlin agrees. For every 10 patients needing transplantation for a blood disease like leukemia, only two have a sibling who is a suitable bone marrow donor. Of the remaining eight, only four find a matched unrelated donor from the National Marrow Donor Program, while the others eventually die of their disease. For minorities, the likelihood of finding a match is less than 15%.

"The conclusion that these cells are a good alternative for patients without a suitable donor is premature but real," Morris Kletzel, MD, tells WebMD after reviewing Laughlin's research report in the June 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. He is director of the stem cell transplant program at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

Although only 19 of the 68 patients in Laughlin's study who received cord blood survived, they all had been suffering from life-threatening blood cancers. Kletzel is encouraged that 90% of recipients had growth of new, healthy blood cells after cord blood transplantation. Of those, 18 were still completely disease-free more than three years later.

"I think that an unrelated cord blood transplant should be offered in adults when the patient is affected by a life-threatening bone marrow disease when there is no alternative treatment," Eliane Gluckman, MD, a hematologist at Hopital Saint-Louis in Paris, tells WebMD. "At this stage, only patients who do not have a [genetically matched] bone marrow donor are candidates."

Laughlin's team is now trying to grow cord blood stem cells in the laboratory, hoping that transplanting a larger dose of stem cells will allow faster recovery of blood counts and lower risk of infections.

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