Adult stem cell breakthroughby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, December 15, 2001
In an astounding scientific breakthrough, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh have cured young Keone Penn from the fatal sickle cell blood disease. The doctors used adult stem cells saved from the blood of umbilical cords previously considered medical waste after a child is born.
Although many scientists are currently trying to persuade legislators to let them destroy human embryos to obtain embryo stem cells for research, adult stem cells occuring naturally in the body are proving far more promising for curing human ailments.
Young Keone was diagnosed when just six months old as having sickle cell, a painful genetic blood disease that caused him to have a stroke when he was five years old.
According to CBS News
, for six years, Keone was constantly in and out of an Atlanta hospital to receive transfusions to stave off another potentially deadly stroke. By the time he was 11, the transfusions were becoming less effective and he had excruciating pain in his joints and lower back.
His mother, Leslie Penn, says that the pain was usually so intense that even morphine, Demerol, and such heavy-duty medicines didn’t really touch it. "All you can really do is pray that he’ll just go to sleep."
By 1998, the odds were that Keone had only five years left to live. Then his doctors suggest a radical new procedure. Discarded umbilical cord blood contains concentrated stem adult stem cells, which they would inject into Keone to help his body produce new disease free blood.
The previous form of treatment involved a bone marrow transplant. However, that can be tricky because there must be a precise match between the person donating the bone marrow and the patient receiving it. In Keone’s case, no match could be found.
The advantage of adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood is that they don’t need an exact match.
Over Christmas vacation of 1998, after intensive chemotherapy to destroy Keone’s bad blood, he was injected with the stem cells.
After a few weeks, something extraordinary happened - the stem cells changed his entire blood system from type O to type B.
"That concept is the one that really blows my mind," says Leslie Penn. "The thought that your whole blood type is changed." The umbilical cord cell’s donor, he took on their blood type without rejection.
A year later, doctors declared that the sickle cells in Keone’s body had disappeared. Today, he is considered cured.
For Dr Yeager, Keone’s cure points the way in future stem cell research. He said that when stem cells from umbilical cord blood are injected into a person’s vein, they migrate to the bone marrow and can create what he calls a "blood factory", replacing diseased blood with healthy blood.
He said that stem cells may one day be able repair the body’s tissue and muscle and cure everything from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s.
"It’s not just pie-in-the-sky speculation," says Yeager. "There are studies that would suggest that other organ dysfunction - nerve damage, heart damage, brain-cell damage - might actually be fixed."
It has the potential to make paralysed patients walk and make Alzheimer’s sufferers remember.