Cells that can save a life

Courtesy: health.asia.one

Life can sometimes deal kids and their parents a tough blow. But if there’s a choice between certain death or the chance of leading of a normal life, even if that means going though a complicated and extremely expensive transplantation process, then there’s little doubt about the option most will select – provided, of course, that the obstacles are removed.

“Many of my young patients simply wish to go to school,” says Dr Suradej Hongeng, associate professor with the Paediatric Hematology Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant service at Ramathibodi Hospital

“The blood stem cell transplant is best way and the most efficient treatment to completely cure diseases related to blood cell irregularities including aplastic anaemia, thalassemia, acute and chronic leukaemia, lymphoma cancer, and primary immunodeficiency,” he says.

Patients who have matched blood stem cell will go through procedures to restore stem cells that have been destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

“Without healthy bone marrow, the patient is no longer able to make the blood cells needed to carry oxygen, fight infection, and prevent bleeding. The successful stem cell transplantation can restore the bone marrow’s ability to produce the blood cells the patient needs. The overall procedure takes about two months for the patient to once again live a normal life. However, the cost of treatment is as high as Bt1 million for one patient,” Dr Suradej continues.

Thailand has a large number of patients suffering from diseases caused by blood cell irregularities, genetic disorders and diseases such as blood cell cancer and lymph gland cancer and in particular thalassemia, which affects as many of 600,000 to one million Thais. At least 20 million – 40 per cent of the population – are carriers of at least one of the abnormal genes and every year, 12 out of 1,000 infants is born with thalassemia.

For poorer Thais, stem cell transplants have always been out of reach. Now, some of them will be getting a helping hand thanks to Ramathibodi Foundation under the royal patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, which recently launched the stem cell transplantation project in honour of Their Majesties the King and the Queen to mark the auspicious occasion of His Majesty the King’s seventh cycle birthday anniversary on December 5, 2011 as well as Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday anniversary on August 12, 2012.

Professor Saengsuree Jootar, director of the project, says that the main purpose is to help those patients with financial problems. Initially, 100 possible patients who have matched blood stem cells will be treated under the project. Some are patients of Ramathibodi Hospital while others are receiving treatment at other hospitals. Yet others are patients under the royal patronage.”

In case of the Surakriangsaks family, seven-year-Pisitpong, was diagnosed with thalassemia when he just 12 months old. His parents were told back then that the only cure was a stem cell transplant. “I felt like my heart would break every time I saw my baby receive a blood transfusion. We seemed to spend so much time at the hospital,” says Pisitpong’s mother.

“Then doctors encouraged us to have a second child. It is the best to transplanted stem cells that match the recipient’s own stem cells as closely as possible. I prayed so hard for a baby with matched stem cell. Two years later Supasek was born and we were so lucky. He saved his brother life.” The family joined the foundation prior to the launch of the bone marrow transplantation project initiated in honour of HM the Queen’s 72nd Birthday.

“I believe every body loves life. They want to be cured and live normally,” says Dr Suradej. “When I was a medical student, many patients died as we could do nothing to save them. If a person has leukaemia, of course it depends on their condition, but at the maximum they have about six months to live. Today, we have the treatment to save them but it is still very expensive. With the last project we saved 79 lives and spent Bt80 million. Raising Bt100 million this time is certainly not easy but I believe that when you wish for the sake of others, it will come true,” adds the doctor with a smile.

The use of stem cells in Thailand is quite controversial, not least because of the advertising campaign that claims they are a “magic medicine” curing everything from brain and heart disease to old age. Pregnant women have also become targets through campaigns encouraging them to bank the placenta and umbilical cord for future benefits.

Dr. Suradej explains that apart from treatments for diseases linked to blood cell irregularities, which have medical approval, stem cell usage is still the subject of medical research. “This is very much about medical ethics. The only party that benefits from stem cell storage, which costs a great deal, is the storage company. Even the American Academy of Paediatrics does not recommend it, because the chance of using it is very minimal. If you want to do something useful with your stem cells, I’d recommend donating them to the Thai Red Cross Society. That way the stem cell storage will be for the public benefit and more valuable for the purpose of saving lives.”

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