By Lori Hadacek Chaplin
While much hype surrounds the supposed promise of embryonic stem-cell research, stem cells harvested from an adult body and from umbilical-cord blood are already saving lives.
Our Sunday Visitor talked to two people who benefited from cord blood and one whose life was saved because of adult stem-cell therapy.
Newborn's gift of life
Imagine receiving hundreds of blood transfusions before your 20th birthday. From the time Heidi Tweten of Chatfield, Minn., was 10 months old, she endured monthly blood transfusions because her body refused to make red blood cells thanks to a disease called Diamond Blackfan anemia.
A bone-marrow transplant could cure the disease, but Tweten's family thought it too big a risk. "For a bone-marrow transplant, a good match is needed or the risk is too great," Tweten told OSV. The body could easily reject the marrow or suffer from graft-versus-host disease, where the transplant attacks the body, causing the organs to shut down.
By her 20th birthday, Tweten's body began to reject the donated blood -- sapping her vitality and forcing her to withdraw from college. At that point, she knew she needed to look into other options.
Though still being researched and studied at the time, umbilical-cord-blood transplants seemed like the miracle cure for which the family had been praying.
"With a cord-blood transplant, the blood is used from a clamped umbilical cord of a newborn. There's no risk to the baby, and a new life can be given to others." Tweten said on the National CordBlood Program's website. "When we learned that the risk of graft-versus-host disease is greatly decreased with a cord-blood transplant, I jumped at the offer."
The treatment looks like a regular blood transfusion; the only difference is that the recipient endures a month of chemotherapy beforehand. It took Tweten two months before her body started to make its own marrow.
"I was in the hospital [at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C.] for three months, but I couldn't go home until a total of six months."
Disease-free for eight years, Tweten has been able to realize many of her dreams -- graduating from nursing school, getting married to her husband,Brent, and adopting a little boy, Andy.
Tweten said those accomplishments wouldn't be possible without God's help and the generosity of a now-8-year-old girl and her parents, who decided to donate their newborn's cord blood.
'Our last hope'
For two years, Katherine "Koko" Marguerite Sutter, now 6, and her parents lived in hospitals -- where Katherine learned to speak her first words and to take her first steps while attached to cords inserted into her stomach.
In June 1999, when Katherine was 5 months old, she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a disease mostly found in adults.
"They took the blood tests . . . and we got a call two hours later to get to Cedar Sinai Hospital immediately. Life stopped at that moment; I was numb," Richard Sutter, Katherine's father, told OSV. "Here I was, signing forms that said the hospital was not responsible; the hospital has the right to do anything and everything to your child . . . There was no time for a second opinion."
Richard and Allison Sutter, who live in Los Angeles, quit their jobs to be with their baby 24/7 and watched Katherine endure a series of treatments that failed.
"After six rounds of chemotherapy, eight surgeries, hundreds of medications administered around the clock, the CAT scan, MRI, EEG, EKG, spinal taps, morphine, temperatures of 106, heart rate of 230 per minute, pneumonia, sores throughout her entire [gastrointestinal] tract, numerous visits to the intensive-care unit, we had still not rid ourselves of this horrible disease," Richard Sutter said.
Then the family received an Internet referral to Dr. JoAnne Kurtzberg at Duke University Medical Center, who conducts cord-blood transplants. "She takes on the worst cases; she doesn't care about statistics," said Richard Sutter. "A cord-blood transplant was really our last hope."
In late fall 2000, after a long, but successful treatment, the Sutters took Katherine home. She has been free of the disease for five years.
"She is a living example of the power of prayer and the effectiveness of cord blood, " her father said, adding he hopes every parent will understand the necessity of saving their newborn's cord blood.
In January, LifeSiteNews.com reported that "success stories about adult stem-cell treatments are coming in so fast that . . . [it] is having trouble keeping up."
Tom Scheer, a 71-year-old part-time accountant from Huntington, Ind., is one such success story. In July 2002, Scheer was diagnosed with IgA multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell. His doctor told him that he was a good candidate for adult stem-cell therapy.
Before the harvesting took place, though, doctors gave Scheer 96 hours of chemotherapy at a nearby hospital to kill off as much of the disease as possible. Afterward, they harvested stem cells from Scheer's chest.
"I was fortunate that they were able to harvest my own stem cells because only one's own stem cells or that of an identical twin are a true match," he told OSV.
Doctors hope to harvest at least two transplants from a patient, but in Scheer's case, they were able to harvest four.
Everyone has a different experience with stem-cell therapy, but Scheer felt like he went through less pain than many other patients. "The results are positive, but the process is a negative one for many patients. While the stem-cell transplant is not painful, the chemo and the risk of infection are the worst part," he said.
Sheer said he'd recommend adult stem-cell therapy to anyone suffering from a blood-borne disease like his own. Though he continues to take drugs to manage the disease, he knows many people who have been able stay off medication after the treatment.
"If I hadn't had it [adult stem-cell therapy], it is doubtful if I would have lived beyond six months to a year; it was able to control my disease to the extent where these other drugs are beneficial," he said.
He also attributes his being alive to his Catholic faith and to his dedicated wife, Arlene. "I really think that both of these worked in tandem with the medical treatment. I don't think that without any of them that I would be alive today."
--Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Iowa.
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