Adult Stem Cell Research Could Save Thousands With Leukemia

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 26, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Adult Stem Cell Research Could Save Thousands With Leukemia Email this article
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by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
November 26, 2004

Cleveland, OH ( — Adult stem cell research could save the lives of thousands of adults who are suffering from leukemia, according to new studies involving umbilical cord blood.

A European study found that adult patients who received cord blood were as likely to be leukemia-free two years later as those who received bone marrow. In addition, a U.S. study, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found similar results.

The studies raise new questions about the wisdom of embryonic stem cell research, which has had little success. Many bioethicists also find such research troubling because it involves the killing of human embryos.

One non-lethal alternative, umbilical cord blood, offers an advantage in that it is unlikely to attack a patient’s immune system. Up to this point, cord blood was considered suitable only for children, but the just-released studies indicate it can be effective for adults as well.

Some 16,000 American adults experiencing leukemia each year cannot find a suitable marrow donor, according to Dr. Mary J. Laughlin of Case Comprehensive Cancer Center in Cleveland.

Cord blood transplants began in the 1990s — about thirty years after the first bone marrow transplants. It is estimated that adult stem cell transplants save 20 to 30 percent of patients who hope to develop new immune systems.

"Umbilical cords that are normally discarded after birth could provide real hope for these patients," Mary Horowitz of the Medical College of Wisconsin told the press.

Meanwhile, Laughlin said, "These are very high risk patients who undergo cord blood transplants only as a last resort effort to stay alive. Even with a cord blood transplant, these patients often suffer from life-threatening infections. But the fact is, without attempting this innovative therapy, none of them would survive.”

Two competing U.S. public cord bank systems currently exist. One holds about 38,000 vials while the other holds 27,000. Another 20 private banks kept by paying families reportedly exist.

The research on cord blood and leukemia can be found at the New England Journal of Medicine website at