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First Patient to Get Stem Cell Treatment for Crohn's in Remission

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Aug. 10, 2001 -- Joy Weiss treated herself to a Big Mac for lunch on Friday and then considered whether she should top off the meal with a salad, some fruit, or both. For most 20-somethings, that doesn't sound like an extraordinary lunch choice, but for Weiss it's a miracle meal.

The miracle in this case is a controversial, experimental medical procedure that involves stem cells harvested from a patient's own bone marrow.

Ten weeks ago, Weiss became the first person to undergo the stem cell infusion for treatment of Crohn's disease, a condition in which the body's immune system attacks the patient's digestive tract. On Monday, researchers at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital completed a second such treatment in another Crohn's patient. The second patient, reportedly a 16-year old male, has requested anonymity, says Richard Burt, MD, lead researcher in the pilot study. Burt says, however, that the second patient is doing well.

For years, Weiss did not know a single day without pain, the gut-wrenching pain caused by Crohn's disease. "Until I was 19 I could never get my weight up above 90 pounds," says the 22-year-old Weiss. Dairy foods, salad, fruit, nuts, fried foods -- all were dietary no-no's for Weiss, who was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when she was 11.

Over the years of treatment for the condition, Weiss suffered through as many as 10 daily attacks of painful diarrhea characterized by watery, bloody stools.

Treating the Crohn's symptoms required the powerful steroid prednisone, which helped quiet the inflammation caused by the disease but also weakened other tissues in her body. Moreover, years of intestinal disease plus steroid therapy impaired her body's ability to absorb calcium, so she has developed osteoporosis, the bone-wasting disease normally associated with old age.

Two years ago, Weiss' doctor began using IV tubes to deliver "night feeds so that I could get some nutrients." Her gastroenterologist recommended her for a colostomy, a procedure in which a large part of the colon is removed and the patient wears an external bag for waste. But after examining her, "my surgeon said that although my body was ready for a colostomy, I wasn't ready psychologically, so he said he would look for other alternatives."

The surgeon turned to the Internet, and there he found an article about Burt's proposal to treat Crohn's disease with an experimental procedure that required a stem cell transplant, using cells harvested from the patient's own bone marrow. This type of transplant is used to treat leukemia and other cancers.

Burt and his co-investigator Robert Craig, MD, had been waiting for about three years for the "right patient for this procedure," says Craig, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University Medical School.

The pilot study in which Weiss was the first patient will eventually include 10 Crohn's patients who have "failed all other accepted therapies," says Burt. Craig tells WebMD the patients not only "will have failed all other therapies, but they also must convince me that they are willing to take the risks associated with stem cell transplant."

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