Leukemia gets a boost

What's the buzz on cord blood stem cells?

Dr. Colleen Delaney and colleagues at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center published a significant breakthrough relating to new treatment options for acute leukemia and other blood cancers this month in  Nature Medicine journal.

Promising news for cord blood stem cell applications.

For several years there has been strong interest in using umbilical cord blood stem cells for bone marrow transplantation – an attempt to ablate the cancerous cells and replace them with a healthy blood system.  The procedure has been largely limited to transplants in children since the number of cells recovered from a typical umbilical cord is too low to successfully engraft an adult.

Parents in Canada wishing to have essentially a leukemia “insurance policy” for their newborn children are increasingly pursuing cord blood banking (see, for example, Insception, Cells for Life, CReATe) but can this resource ever be of use to treat adults?  Can the limited cord blood cells be developed to allow multiple treatments for the same child?

Dr. Delaney’s team have provided a way forward.  By tweaking the Notch signaling pathway they were able to expand cord blood stem cells 160-fold.  When the expanded cells were used in the clinic they successfully engrafted patients twice as fast as when using non-expanded cells and 70% of the patients appeared disease-free at follow up.  In addition use of the expanded cells led to restoration of the neutrophil component more quickly (neutrophils are white blood cells which act as the first line of defense against infection).

With this work cord blood stem cells have taken an important step closer to the mainstream.