Blood disorders and your children: Why UAE parents should consider stem cell treatment
According to haematology experts, 40% of the UAE’s population suffer from some form of blood disorder, with blood cancer among the leading causes of premature death. For an increasing number of people in the country, hope lies in the development of stem cell therapy, which is breaking new ground in the successful treatment of blood disorders, including blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.
Stem cell therapy relies on the collection and storage of healthy stem cells, which can be transfused into a patient to replace diseased cells and help to repair damaged ones. One of the purest sources of healthy stem cells is blood from the umbilical cord of newborn babies – a precious resource, which can be collected in a simple, non-invasive procedure. For expectant parents, the opportunity to go ahead with this procedure and bank a supply of cord blood stem cells is now a serious consideration, promising a lifelong safeguard against up to 80 diseases and counting – including anaemia, sickle cell disease, and blood cancer.
Stem cell successes
Among the successes already achieved through stem cell therapy, the treatment of blood disorders is foremost. Human blood is made up of three main components: red blood cells, which carry oxygen through the body; white blood cells, which fight infection; and platelets, which help the blood clot. Any disorder that affects any part of the blood and stops it from doing its job can have severe consequences for the rest of the body and overall health. Stem cell therapy – usually administered after a course of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy the diseased cells – can combat a range of blood diseases and help to repair the damage.
Anaemia: The most common of all blood disorders, anaemia affects almost one third of the world’s population. It occurs when the haemoglobin (the substance in the blood that makes the cells red and carries oxygen round the body) is deficient or abnormal, which results in insufficient oxygen throughout the body. Stem cell therapy can boost the production of healthy red blood cells, restoring the balance in the blood and helping to alleviate the symptoms of anaemia.
The most common of all blood disorders, anaemia affects almost one third of the world’s population.
Thalassemia: Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder that, like anaemia, affects the body’s ability to produce haemoglobin and healthy red blood cells. Thalassemia can be passed on to a child if both parents carry the faulty gene and it can be detected when a baby is around six months old, when they will show symptoms of severe anaemia. Thalassemia carriers are most prevalent among the people of the Middle East, Mediterranean (including North Africa) and Southeast Asia. A recent genetic study in the UAE estimated that the alpha-thalassemia carrier rate may be as high as 49%. Consanguineous marriages (marriages between blood relatives), common among Emiratis, contribute to the prevalence of genetic blood disorders such as thalassemia.
Stem cell therapy is emerging as not only an effective treatment for thalassemia but also as a cure. Cord blood stem cells are infused through a drip into a vein and start to produce healthy red blood cells to replace the affected cells. The evidence to date, though limited, suggests that the long-term outcome is excellent, with a higher than 90% survival rate.
Sickle cell disease (SCD): SCD is the name given to a group of inherited red blood cell disorders caused by an abnormal form of haemoglobin, which causes the red blood cells to become sickle-shaped. These cells cannot move freely through the blood vessels and cause blockages, which result in severe pain and progressive organ damage. Both parents may carry the abnormal gene but remain healthy themselves. The anaemia that results from the condition is not present at birth but develops in the first six months. It is estimated that there are over two million people in the world suffering from sickle cell disease, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and India.
Stem cell transplants are increasingly being tried for children and young adults with the severe form of SCD. After a successful stem cell transplant, close to 90% of patients become symptom-free and can expect to live a very good quality of life.
Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID): SCID is a group of rare, inherited blood disorders present at birth. Babies with SCID have compromised immune systems caused by missing or weak white blood cells. This leaves them vulnerable to serious and life-threatening infections. Without treatment, most young children with SCID die within one to two years. No data is available for the prevalence of SCID in the UAE but research reveals that the incidence of SCID is highest in regions where consanguineous marriage is common, so it is a specific threat to Emiratis.
Stem cell transplants or bone marrow transplants are the only known cures for SCID. The new stem cells are infused into the patient’s bloodstream, replacing diseased cells with healthy cells. The new white blood cells can then begin to help the body fight infection effectively.
Blood cancers: The main types of blood cancer where stem cell therapy has proved particularly successful are leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
The main types of blood cancer where stem cell therapy has proved particularly successful are leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Leukemia: This is one of the most common forms of cancer in infants. Abnormal white cells in the blood grow too quickly, pushing the system out of balance, weakening and completely blocking the immune system. The cancerous white blood cells can spread into the lymphatic system and move throughout the body.
Lymphoma: A group of cancers affecting the lymphatic system, which helps to fight off disease and is a crucial part of the immune system. The cancer develops when the body’s cell structure changes, leading to oversized cells that put the body’s system out of balance, or to the development of tumours. Over time, these cancerous cells spread to other areas of the body. In the UAE, lymphoma is the most common childhood cancer and accounts for nearly two-thirds of all childhood malignancies.
Multiple myeloma: This affects the plasma cells, part of the immune system responsible for making antibodies that help defend the body against germs. When plasma cells grow out of control they can produce a tumour. When more than one tumour develops, it is called multiple myeloma.
With all these blood cancers, treatment begins with chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the cancerous cells, followed by an infusion of healthy stem cells, which travel to the affected area where they repair the damage and form new healthy cells. Stem cell therapy already forms an important part of the treatment of several types of blood cancer but it can, in some instances, also be part of the cure.
According to a 2013 US study, survival rates have increased significantly among patients who received blood stem cell transplants.
According to a 2013 US study, survival rates have increased significantly among patients who received blood stem cell transplants. The study analysed outcomes for more than 38,000 transplant patients with life-threatening blood cancers and other diseases over a 12-year period, capturing approximately 70-90% of all related and unrelated blood stem cell transplants performed in the US. The increase in survival rates was attributed to several factors, including advances in matching donor/recipient compatibility, better supportive care, and earlier referral for transplantation. This success reinforces the role of blood stem cell transplants as a curative option for life-threatening blood cancers.
Extending the treatment to other blood disorders
Experts believe that the full potential of cord blood stem cell therapy to effectively treat blood disorders is still unfolding. Research is ongoing, looking at the use of stem cell therapy to help less common blood disorders such as polycythemia vera (a slow-developing blood cancer) and congenital cytopenia (a rare inherited platelet disorder).
Ongoing research is also looking at ways to increase the number of stem cells that can be obtained from one cord blood sample by growing and multiplying the cells in the laboratory, a process known as ex vivo expansion. Several preliminary clinical trials using this technique are under way.
The success rate of stem cell therapy in treating a wide range of blood disorders continues to grow at a rapid pace, offering genuine hope to blood disorder sufferers who previously faced a bleak prognosis. As we look to the future and the development of this therapy in helping to both preserve and enhance lives, the emphasis is on collecting and storing umbilical cord blood when the opportunity arises. For expectant parents, the joy of bringing a new life into the world can be augmented by the peace of mind offered by the life-giving blood that the new birth brings.
Smart Cells is the UK’s first private cord blood storage company, helping parents from across the world take the pioneering decision to store the stem cells of their babies for greater security of health. For more information on umbilical cord blood banking or to organise a consultation, please click here to find the number of the office nearest to you, email us on UAE@smartcells.com, or click here.
About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.