Chile Carries Out First Transplant of Locally-Obtained Stem Cells

By Dialogo
July 24, 2009

SANTIAGO, 23 July 2009 (AFP) - A forty-eight-year-old man with leukemia became the first patient in Chile to receive a transplant of umbilical-cord stem cells stored in the country’s only public stem-cell bank, a procedure that could cure him. The transplant, which took place on Monday, was made possible by the fact that one of the samples kept in the Bank of Life turned out to be compatible with the patient, whose best chance for survival was the transplant, according to doctors from Catholic University of Santiago Hospital, where the operation was done. “The patient previously received chemotherapy and radiation for seven days, and following a day of rest, the stem cells were injected into a vein, as if it were a transfusion,” the coordinator of the hospital’s Hematology and Oncology Unit, Francisco Barriga, explained to AFP. The doctor, who is also the technical director of the Bank of Life, explained that the purpose of the chemotherapy was to eliminate the patient’s sick cells, so that the new cells will be the ones to restore all the functions of the blood, a process which may take at least a year. “From an immunological point of view, he was reborn. This is so much the case that after the whole process, we will vaccinate him like an infant,” Barriga specified. The specialist clarified that the transplant’s success will not be known immediately. “The first year is the most difficult. If the leukemia has not reappeared in two or three years, more or less, then we will consider him cured,” he indicated. The Bank of Life has been in operation in Chile for two years. It has around two hundred samples available, and its long-term objective is to become an option not only for Chileans, but for foreigners as well. “We can have these cells for ourselves and for whoever needs them in the world,” Barriga affirmed. The doctor indicated that the Chilean cells will soon be registered with a worldwide network of umbilical-cord donors and blood banks. “In this way, the blood of a Chilean child can be used in a transplant for a German child, for example,” he commented. According to Barriga, around one hundred young Chileans die of leukemia annually, without access to medical procedures of this kind. For this reason, he considers it necessary to reach agreements with other local clinics to store more stem cells and to train more specialists to take advantage of umbilical-cord blood and process it every time a child is born, since this is the source from which stem cells are extracted. “After a baby is born and is taken by the pediatric doctor, the mother still has the placenta inside and a segment of the umbilical cord coming out. At that moment we need to find the large vein in the cord and extract the blood left in there. We have five minutes to do this before the mother expels the placenta,” Barriga explains. The extracted blood is processed in a laboratory, and the stem cells are separated from the white blood cells. They are frozen at -40°C, submerged in liquid nitrogen at -190°C, and stored in the bank to await a compatible patient.