When a child suffers from cancer, a blood disorder or a serious immunodeficiency, a bone marrow transplant may be the only treatment option for living a healthy life.
“Bone marrow, located within the center of our bones, contains the stem cells that give rise to red and white blood cells as well as platelets that carry oxygen to body tissues, help fight infections and promote clotting,” said Joel Brochstein, MD, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center. “As a consequence of the very intensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy that is sometimes necessary to cure particular patients of their disease, a stem cell transplant is required to ensure recovery of normal marrow function and the reestablishment of normal immune function.”
Becoming a Donor
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, each year nearly 20,000 people, from infants to adults age 74, could benefit from a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant as potentially curative therapy of serious diseases of the bone marrow (such as leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia or severe aplastic anemia) or the immune system.
At Cohen Children’s, which opened the new Gambino Medical and Science Foundation Stem Cell Transplant Unit in April 2016, the most frequently treated bone marrow disorder is leukemia — the most common type of childhood cancer.
Once a doctor determines that a bone marrow transplant is the best option, a simple infusion of stem cells from a sibling, family member or unrelated donor is necessary. Since the chance of any sibling being a perfect match is one out of four, if that avenue proves fruitless, the search extends to the public.
“Sometimes we don’t find a match within the family, which is when we turn to the National Marrow Donor Program,” Dr. Brochstein said. “It’s an essential global resource we use on a daily basis to save lives. That’s why it’s so important for people to sign up.”
Becoming a stem cell donor may sound daunting, but the donation process is fairly noninvasive. For most pediatric recipients, the stem cells are taken directly from the hip bone of the donor.
“The donor is placed under general anesthesia and, using bone marrow needles, we aspirate marrow directly from the donor’s hip bone. The amount of marrow that is required depends upon the size of our patient,” Dr. Brochstein said. “Donors go home the same day, and while they may experience some moderate pain at the site where the marrow was collected, they can usually be back to work or to school the very next day.”
The Benefits of Donation
Hunter Haymore of Jamaica, Queens, understands the importance of the National Marrow Donor Program more than most people. At 14, Hunter underwent bone marrow transplantation from a compatible unrelated donor for the treatment of sickle cell disease, a genetic red blood cell condition that she had lived with since birth.
“By 2011, Hunter had experienced two strokes, brain surgery and monthly blood transfusions,” said Donna Haymore, Hunter’s mother. “Her red blood cells were shaped like sickles so they couldn’t flow through her brain’s blood vessels properly. They would get stuck, causing catastrophic damage.”
Unresponsive to medication, Hunter and her mother decided to put their trust in Cohen Children’s. Since Hunter had no siblings who could serve as a matching bone marrow donor, a search for a compatible bone marrow donor was conducted through the National Marrow Donor Program. They found a match who, though living in another country, agreed to donate marrow for Hunter. Dr. Brochstein and his staff performed Cohen Children’s first unrelated donor bone marrow transplant for a patient with severe sickle cell anemia.
“Hunter’s bone marrow transplant was a huge success, resulting in her cure,” Ms. Haymore said. “She is now a healthy freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta and is forever grateful for the love and care she received from Dr. Brochstein and the entire staff at Cohen Children’s. Dr. Brochstein and his team are truly the best out there.”
Read the spring 2016 issue of Kids First.