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Cord Blood Transplant OK for Adult Leukemia

Studies: Cord Blood Transplants Realistic Option for Adult Leukemia Treatment
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Nov. 24, 2004 -- Umbilical cord blood transplants may be a viable treatment option for adults with leukemia when a matching bone marrow donor isn't available, according to two major new studies.

Umbilical cord blood transplants are already successful in treating children with leukemia, but until now the safety and effectiveness of the treatment in adults with leukemia has not been examined.

A common treatment for adult leukemia is a stem cell bone marrow transplant. During this procedure diseased bone marrow cells are replaced with healthy, immature cells known as stem cells. These stem cells are taken from a strictly matched blood marrow donor. Once transplanted into the leukemia patient, these cells can grow into normal blood cells.

However, only about 30% of eligible adults with leukemia have a family member that matches or is a compatible bone marrow donor. Of the remainder, nearly 20% receive transplants from unrelated donors, but the risk of the recipient rejecting the bone marrow transplant, because of incompatibility, is higher when an unrelated donor is used.

Stem cells that can be used in such a transplant are also found in umbilical cord blood. But cord blood transplants have been used only as a last resort in adults with leukemia because cord blood contains only a small fraction of stem cells needed to treat an adult.

But two new studies published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine indicate that cord blood from an unrelated donor should be considered as an alternative source of stem cells for treating adults with leukemia when a matching bone marrow donor is not available.

Umbilical Cord Blood vs. Bone Marrow Transplants

In the studies, researchers compared the results of stem cell transplants using stem cells taken from unrelated bone marrow donors with stem cells taken from unrelated cord blood donors.

In the first study of 663 adults, 98 received cord blood and 584 received bone marrow in transplants performed from 1998 through 2002.

The results showed that adults who received cord blood transplants had a lower risk of severe rejection of the donor cells (a condition known as graft-versus-host disease) than those who had bone marrow transplants, but immune system recovery was significantly delayed.

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