Navel Research

By Joseph Altman Jr.

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The lifeline for a newborn baby is now serving as a lifeline for cancer patients as well.

David Harris, microbiology and immunology associate professor, has been investigating the use of umbilical-cord blood as an alternative for bone marrow in the treatment of cancer patients.

If more mothers elect to donate their cord blood, it would be a better source for stem cells, the cells which repopulate blood cells and are found in bone marrow and umbilical-cord blood, Harris said.

"The rate of success is quite high, and significantly, the cost is quite low because it's fairly inexpensive to harvest and store cord blood as compared to bone marrow," Harris said.

"People don't have to wait, because once it's frozen and stored it can be made available within a period of days."

Mothers who want to have their core blood stored, either for their own child or as a donation for an unrelated person, can ask their doctor to send the blood to Harris' lab.

The blood is separated and purified, then put into a small vial, which is frozen very gradually and stored between minus 196 and minus 190 Celsius in a large, computerized bank which indexes the samples using robotics and computer bar codes.

Harris's storage bank can hold 35,000 samples in a space about the size of two large refrigerators, and has the largest storage capacity in the country.

Currently, Harris said he is storing about 400 samples, and he receives two to five new samples each day.

There are two other banks in the United States one in New York and one in Pittsburgh. What is unique to the UA's bank is that it facilitates the storage of cord blood for donation or specifically for a mother's own child. The Pittsburgh bank also allows storage for family members, however, it charges $1,500 for initial processing and $100 each year for storage, Harris said. UA's bank charges $50 initially and $50 each year for storage. Harris calls it "biological insurance."

Besides being easier and more cost effective, using cord blood instead of bone marrow means a much smaller chance of rejection by the recipient's body.

The body may attack the donor cells, causing "graft versus host disease." That can be worse than the disease it's trying to cure, said Kate Jensen, director of community affairs for the Children's Research Center.

But since the stem cells in cord blood are immature, they lack the markers which trigger the body's immune system and cause it to attack.

"Graft versus host disease has occurred in less than 10 percent of the cases, versus 90 percent for bone marrow. Those cases that have occurred have been not very severe and easily controlled, so the quality of life for the transplant recipients has been quite good," Harris said.

"With bone marrow, the odds are one in 50,000 that you'll find a match," he said. "With core blood, since we need less perfect matching, the odds are about one in 10,000."

Sixty-two core blood transplants have been performed since the first was done in 1988. Of those, 56 have been successful, Harris said.

Now, Harris is working on using core blood gene therapy as a treatment for HIV and AIDS patients.

"We'll take the cord blood that we've collected and insert a new gene into it that allows it not to be infected by the HIV virus, so that when we transplant the stem cells into the infected individual they'll give rise to the new immune system that can't be infected by HIV," Harris said.

Three or four trials in cord-blood genetics are beginning this year, and Harris said he expects substantial developments in the use of that gene therapy within five years.

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