The program offers both bone marrow and stem cell transplants, with a focus on cord blood, to treat leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and other blood diseases.
While it will take several months to know how effective the cord blood transplants were, the initial results are promising, said Dr. Mary Laughlin, an internationally known stem cell expert recruited to U.Va. to head the program. In both patients, the stem cells began engrafting – producing new cells – 14 days after the transplant instead of the 24 to 28 days it normally takes.
As an obstetrician once told Laughlin: "Something thrown away in my OB suite saves a life in your cancer suite."
The cord blood used for these stem cell transplants comes from placentas that otherwise would be discarded following childbirth, Laughlin said. The cord blood is used with the permission of the new parents, she said. By using cord blood stem cells instead of embryonic stem cells, U.Va.'s program sidesteps the ethical, religious and political concerns commonly associated with stem cells, she said.
Other benefits: Cord blood stem cells are also faster and easier to collect than stem cells from other sources. They are also immune tolerant, meaning they will not attack other cells in the body.
Speed is important because there is a narrow window of opportunity to perform a transplant when a patient's disease is in remission. And because the cord blood stem cells are immune tolerant, the chances of a successful transplant are higher and the donor match doesn't have to be as exact, giving more patients the opportunity to receive a transplant.
Laughlin heads up a team of 29 staff members, including four additional transplant physicians, who began seeing patients in September. The demand for transplants has already been greater than Laughlin and her team expected. The program had initially planned to do 15 transplants in its first year; instead, it now expects to do 100.