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Umbilical Cord Blood Applied to Cancer Treatments as Potential Cure

By Mark Indreika, Catholic Explorer, September 4, 2007

Holly saw a bright future ahead of her about ten years ago. She had just taken a job in sales and marketing, fresh out of college, and finally moving out of her parent’s house. She was in Chicago, blending in seamlessly with the other young professionals walking down the crowded street. But suddenly, her life was thrown horribly off balance.

She lost her appetite, and when she could eat, shoe could barely keep it down. Her temperature spiked to 105.4 degrees. Nothing her doctors did could make her better. They though it might be the flu, then mononucleosis. They couldn't figure it out.

It was only a matter of time before she was confined to her bed. She had to move back home since she was unable to work. She became incredibly dehydrated and was admitted to the hospital.

“You’re too young and pretty to be sick," said a woman as she walked by the now thin and pale Holly laying in the emergency room.

Holly was diagnosed with stage four, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Her bone marrow, liver, and spleen had already been gripped by the cancer. She found no success with six months of chemotherapy. There weren't any matching donors available, but she desperately needed a bone-marrow transplant. She was in danger of losing her life soon.

“I was really as bad as somebody could get,” she told the Catholic Explorer in a telephone interview.

She was running out of time. She opted for an umbilical cord blood stem-cell transplant at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

Dr. Patrick Stiff, director of Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, told the Catholic Explorer, “Cord blood has opened the door to curing patients who otherwise would die. … We actually have transplanted patients in whom the only other option was a hospice program.”

The Catholic Church supports the use of cord-blood stem cells because they are not embryonic. When a traditional bone-marrow transplant is not an option, cord blood cells are used instead to treat cancers originating in the lymphatic system or bone marrow.

According to a statement released by Loyola, “… umbilical cord blood transplants at Loyola are curing or slowing the progression of many cancers.”

Stiff, also a professor of medicine and pathology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, said cord-blood stem cells “are more immature and have a better growth potential” than other adult stem cells. Doctors still consider living-donor, bone-marrow stem cells to be the best treatment option, but cord-blood cells are getting close, he added.

A new technology to grow cord-blood stem cells outside the body was developed ten years ago by Stiff and his team of researchers. Adult treatment was difficult in the past because the cell numbers would be so low. But with the technology, enough stem cells can be produced to treat not only children but adults as well.

“So now a patient who comes to Loyola, who 10 years ago, had as little as a 30 percent chance of finding a donor, now has, approximately, a 90 percent (chance) of finding a donor,” said Stiff, a parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville.

In 1998 Becker was one of the first patients to be treated in the Chicago area.

“Pretty much my only chance for survival would have been to have a cord-blood transplant,” she said. Although, at the time, she didn’t fully understand “how bad it was.”

By always answering her questions Stiff made her feel comfortable.

She felt horrible at Loyola. She couldn't do anything and people around her had to wear masks. She spent five weeks trapped in isolation.

In order to wipe out her immune system, she received high-dose chemotherapy and full-body radiation treatments twice daily prior to her cord blood infusion.

“It was obviously the worst thing I’ve ever been thorough in my entire life.” Becker credits her family and friends for helping her through the ordeal.

She said getting the cord blood was easy. “It’s just like a blood transfusion,” she said.

As part of Stiff's study, a Staten Island, N.Y. native named Stephen also received cord blood in 1997. He was treated in New Jersey at the Hackensack University Medical Center.

The most difficult part was again, isolation, stated Stephen.

The room looked like “a fortress,” he said.

Confetti and seven excited nurses burst through his door about a month later to tell him that there were no signs of rejection and that the infused cord blood stem cells had started to engraft.

For the past ten years, Stephen has been leukemia free.

Speaking to the Catholic Explorer on the telephone, he said his recovery is “a gift from God I never expected to have.”

Creating a national network matching cord blood with patients, President George W. Bush signed the Stem Cell and Therapeutic and Research Act two years ago.

Stephen said that despite the law, most hospitals treat cord blood as medical waste. He advocates for cord-blood usage and admits that an infrastructure is still lacking to help women donate their umbilical cord blood.

Stiff agrees. “There is cost associated with getting cord-blood units into the cord-blood bank at the hospital level, and right now there’s no mechanism to recoup those costs.”

Some places allow people to store their own cord blood. He said, “We need more donated units; we don’t need people storing their own,” since only a fraction will ever be used.

Beyond cancer treatments, cord blood stem cells have immense potential to treat many other conditions said Stiff.

“They do have the capacity to produce pretty much anything, and I guess that’s part of the work that we’re interested in pursuing … . We don’t need to go to embryonic stem cells. There are obvious differences, but we think that the differences are so minor as to never warrant the use of embryonic stem cells for any research or clinical use.”

He asserts that the cells can be harvested despite acknowledging the small number of “primitive stem cells” in cord blood.

“They have, at least in our opinion, the ability to do everything,” he said.

The Catholic Church opposes embryonic stem cell usage because it violates reason, not a specific religious doctrine says Father William Grogan, System Director of Ethics for Provena Health in Mokena. Those who believe human life deserves protection are not necessarily religious people, so much as they are reasonable people said the Archdiocese of Chicago.

"The implications of not designating that reality as a person are far reaching," so respect needs to be expressed to the person in the embryonic state.

In a telephone interview with the Catholic Explorer. he said "if we dehumanize one kind of person, it becomes easier to dehumanize others."

Father Grogan said the Catholic Church supports science, including adult stem-cell research. “We believe faith is wedded with reason; faith and reason are not oppositional, and we are not opposed to science at all.”

Stiff said, “There are more people alive today having received adult stem cells” than embryonic stem cells.

Stiff and his team of doctors have aided many people over the years.

Commenting on their success Stiff said, “You feel good momentarily, but you focus on the poor people you couldn’t help.”

Of course, cord blood cannot save everyone, but Stiff says it is the failures that keep him motivated and working towards the future.

“Hopefully at my funeral there will be people who come and say, You know what, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this guy.”

Holly could most certainly be one of those people.

Her journey down a long road of complications lasted about 2 years. Eventually, she started to get better as she continued to follow all the instructions she was given precisely. Now, ten years have gone by without any signs of cancer.

She began studying Spanish at Loyola University Chicago's graduate school in 1999. She went to Spain to study abroad in the summer of 2001. She said it was during her trip to Spain that she finally felt 100%.

“Stepping foot off the airplane was a big deal,” she said. “I felt like myself again, although as a completely changed person.”


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