- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Umbilical-cord blood, now used mostly to treat children with leukemia, could save thousands of adults with the disease each year who cannot find bone-marrow donors, two big studies indicate.

A European study found that those who received cord blood were just as likely to be free of leukemia two years later as those who received marrow. A U.S. study looking at three-year survival rates yielded results that were almost as promising.

To Dr. Mary Horowitz of the Medical College of Wisconsin, senior author of the U.S. study, the message is clear: Umbilical-cord blood can save adults.

Leukemia patients often undergo radiation or chemotherapy to kill their cancerous white-blood cells — a treatment that wipes out their immune systems, too. To restore their immune systems, doctors give these patients an infusion of cord blood or marrow, both of which contain stem cells capable of developing into every kind of blood cell.

Cord blood offers an important advantage over marrow that makes it particularly valuable for use in transplants: Its stem cells are less likely to attack the recipient’s body. That allows a wider margin of error in matching donors with recipients.

But up to now, cord blood has been considered suitable only for children, because each donation has only about one-tenth of the number of stem cells as a marrow donation.

The two new studies, published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that is not a serious impediment.

In the European study, involving 682 patients, about one-third of both those who received matched marrow and those who received cord blood that did not quite match their own tissues were alive after two years. In the U.S. study of 601 patients, about one-third of those who received matched marrow were leukemia-free after two years, compared with about one-fifth of those who received cord blood or unmatched marrow.

Both studies were based on records from transplants in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Using cord blood could improve the odds of getting a transplant for the 16,000 U.S. adult leukemia patients each year who cannot find a compatible marrow donor, said the U.S. study’s leader, Dr. Mary J. Laughlin of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center in Cleveland.

Still, Dr. Nancy Kernan, assistant chief of marrow transplantation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said cord-blood transplants in adults should be done only as part of studies to look at and improve their effectiveness.

Public cord-blood banks — where blood drawn at birth from umbilical cords and placentas is kept frozen — need to quadruple their supply to find a match for every leukemia patient who needs one. With 4 million births a year in this country and most cord blood thrown away, that should not be a problem once more public money comes into play, doctors said.

A federal Institute of Medicine committee already is looking into the best way to set up a national cord-blood supply and is scheduled to complete its report in March.

Most doctors consider cord blood more appropriate for smaller people, because it contains fewer stem cells than marrow. In the two studies, cord-blood recipients tended to weigh less than those who received marrow — an average of 22 pounds less in the U.S. research, about 18 pounds less in the European study.

There are two competing U.S. public cord-blood-bank systems, one holding about 38,000 vials, the other 27,000. Together, they do not add up to the supply kept by just one of the 20 or so private banks kept for paying families.

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