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Cancer Stories: Finding a Match With Cord Blood

March 23, 2015

Bone marrow donor matches are becoming increasingly difficult due to our diverse gene pool. Many blood cancer patients die waiting for a match to be found. Now, cord blood transplants are proving to be just as successful as bone marrow transplants, thanks to new research led by Dr. Colleen Delaney at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Six-year-old Ava Lee is no stranger to hospitals. She was born with asthma, eczema and severe food allergies. “They call it the ‘trifecta’ in the allergy world,” her mother Esther says. Esther and her husband Mike made multiple visits to the ER those first five years of Ava’s life. Then, in February of last year, one of those ER visits revealed news that was much worse.

“They did a CDC — a routine check of all her white blood cells — and they found that she had 80% leukemic blast cells throughout her body and her blood,” Esther says.

In Feb. 2014, Ava Lee was diagnosed with biphenotypic leukemia, a rare type of leukemia that’s especially hard to treat.

Ava was diagnosed with biphenotypic leukaemia, a rare form of leukemia that’s especially difficult to treat. The family opted for traditional chemotherapy treatments, but eight months later, tests revealed that the cancer was resistant to the treatment.

Doctors said Ava’s best chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant. “The unfortunate thing is we could not find a match for her because we are of Asian descent,” Esther explains. “My husband is Taiwanese and I’m Korean.” Devastated, the family desperately searched for any alternative treatment options from their home in Chicago.  

An online search led them to Dr. Colleen Delaney of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “I happened to be in clinical service when a phone call came into my office and it was Ava’s dad calling,” says Delaney “I said, ‘Well, I’m here and I’m on service. Can you come out and visit Seattle and see our site and see the trials we have going on?’ And, literally within five days I think we met each other.”

Delaney is the Cord Blood Transplant Director at Fred Hutch, and was in the middle of conducting clinical trials of cord blood transplants. Cord blood transplants work the same way as a bone marrow transplant, but there is one key difference — the matching requirements for a cord blood donor are much less stringent. Cord blood is collected from a baby’s umbilical cord after birth, and contains the same stem cells one would find in bone marrow. However, cord blood stem cells are highly adaptable to their “host” due to their immaturity.

It's their trash, but someone else's treasure, right?

The cord blood that Ava received was available because someone donated their umbilical cord blood. It is completely harmless and no blood sample is taken from the baby. For more information on what it takes to donate your cord blood, please visit Be the Match or talk to your doctor.

“The immune system that’s associated with that bag of blood is very naïve and uneducated,” says Delaney. “So we can mismatch that blood with a cord blood patient and that opens up a whole new door. We can find a donor for nearly every single patient who needs a transplant but can’t find a conventional donor.”

Delaney calls cord blood the “ultimate recycled product,” and says collecting blood from the umbilical cord after birth is an easy way to preserve stem cells that might otherwise simply be thrown away. “It’s their trash, but someone else’s treasure, right?” she says.

For Ava, the gift of a cord blood transplant has transformed her body. Within two weeks of the transplant she successfully engrafted — the process by which new blood-forming cells start to grow and create healthy blood stem cells.

Esther Lee smiles with her six year old daughter Ava during their interview

“When we saw that, we couldn’t even put into words the joy we were feeling,” says Esther. “The day came where she was getting a whole new chance at life.”

Delaney says Ava’s experience mirrors the success of her other clinical trial patients. She hopes that as more success cases are presented, cord blood transplants will become more widely accepted, and more doctors will recommend them. She would also love to see more hospitals offer umbilical cord donation services. Currently it is easy for women to “bank” their own cord blood privately, but most hospitals lack the resources to provide public donations, and those that do still put the onus on the women.

“Right now women have to opt in — you have to say you want your cord blood collected, otherwise it gets thrown away,” explains Delaney.

As with any transplant, cord blood transplants carry risks. Patients face a weakened immune system, a higher risk of infections, and side effects can include graft versus host disease, a common complication.  Ava’s mom Esther says these side effects are manageable, considering the positive outcome the cord blood transplant brought to her daughter.

“My husband and I can’t believe that we are on this side, because we’ve been on the other side [of the disease] for so long," says Esther. “To be on the side of a successful transplant, of gaining our family back, or going back home. We’re just so elated that we’re on this side and we can go home and have a really wonderful story to tell.”

Ava is now 100 days post-transplant and still showing no signs of leukemic cells in her body. The family is now preparing to return to their home in Chicago, and after battling cancer for over a year, they can now make plans for the future.

For more information about donating cord blood please visit Bloodworks Northwest


Made possible in part by

Stacey Jenkins

Stacey Jenkins is the managing producer of Spark Public. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.

Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.

More stories by Stacey Jenkins

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What a courageous and beautiful little girl!!