Doctors here in Seattle call it a very big deal: a study out this week that shows increased benefits of umbilical cord blood transplants among patients with leukemia.
The study, led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance found that high-risk leukemia patients showed both better outcomes and less chance of relapse after undergoing a cord blood transplant, when compared to more traditional method of treatments like stem cell transplants from an adult, unrelated donor.
"Over the years, cord blood has always been considered an alternative donor source, or an alternative when we can't find a perfectly matched donor in the registry," said Dr. Filippo Milano, with the SCCA - Fred Hutch Cord Blood Transplant Program. "But we can definitely say at SCCA, UW, and Fred Hutch, we can now achieve great results with cord blood, and it doesn't have to be considered an alternative."
For Crystal Day, the research is quite personal. The Seattle woman was initially diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. She fought it off at first with the help of chemotherapy, but the cancer returned in 2014 and was more aggressive than ever.
"It was scary, I mean I thought it was a death sentence pretty much," said Day. "The doctors said that chemo wouldn't work again and the only solution was a transplant and they were looking for a stem cell transplant but they couldn't find a donor."
So with no bone marrow match in sight, her doctors at SCCA and Fred Hutch suggested something Day had never heard of: a cord blood transplant.
"What they do is they take the stem cells out of a baby's umbilical cord and they put it into an IV bag and give it to you," she said.
Day's cord blood transplant was a huge success, and she's now been cancer-free for two years. She hopes the results of this new study give hope to other patients battling leukemia.
"It's exciting," she said. "I feel good that it worked on me and hopefully other patients can now know that it's an option for them as well."
The study looked at the results from about 600 patients who received stem cell transplants either from cord blood or from unrelated adult donors between 2006 and 2014.
Milano said they found that patients with detectable amounts of cancer cells in their blood could benefit from choosing cord blood as the source of stem cells for their transplant over a traditional transplant.
And because stem cells in the umbilical cord are less developed than adult stem cells, they don't have to be "matched" like they do in traditional stem cell transplants from an adult donor. In other words: everyone has a cord blood donor.
"I think it crosses the mind of every patient, the fact that maybe I'm not able to find a donor and then I'm done," said Milano. "But this shows there is hope. There is hope for patients that even if you don't have a donor match, your outcome can still be pretty good."
Day said she absolutely believes the cord blood transplant saved her life.
"I would tell people that cord blood transplants are more than an option, and that they should consider seeking one out. It could help your chances. And I would also tell more people to donate cord blood."
Milano said cord blood donation is a relatively simple procedure, and encourages parents who are interested in donating their baby's cord blood to talk to their doctor about options before the baby is born.
To learn more about how core blood donation works through Bloodworks Northwest, click here.