Stem cell transplantation cures girl of thalassemia


Thamirabharuni (centre)with her father Senthil Kumar (left) and Mayur Abhaya, Executive Director, LifeCell International, in Chennai on Wednesday. DH photo

Doctors at the Apollo Speciality Hospital here, who achieved the feat, claimed that it was the country’s first successful transplant using a sibling’s cord blood stem cells.

The 18-month-old boy, Pugazhendhi, gave his ailing sister Thamirabharuni a new lease of life and permanent relief from the trauma of monthly blood transfusions, after the blood disorder — that results in excessive destruction of red blood cells and causes severe anaemia — had started eating into her vitals for the past nearly seven years. A team of specialists, including Dr Revathi Raj of the Apollo Specialty Hospital, Mayur Abhaya, president of Lifecell International, India’s first and largest umbilical cord blood stem cell bank set up in collaboration with USA’s Cryo-Cell International, and Dr Ajit Kumar, chief scientific officer at Lifecell, who conducted the transplant, presented their findings here on Wednesday along with the completely cured girl.

The girl’s parents from Coimbatore — 35-year-old Senthil Kumar, a carpenter, and Sarojini — ran from pillar to post when they found to their horror that their daughter was suffering from thalassemia. The couple almost gave up hope until a friend put them on to people at the Thalassemia Society in Chennai and met Dr Revathi Raj.

On examining the girl, Dr Revathi said she had advised the couple “to try for one more child” to enable starting an “umbilical cord blood stem cell banking” and transplant. The reason: a newborn sibling’s umbilical cord provides a better chance of the tissues of the donor and the recipient matching, and has very little chance of “donor rejection.”
The treatment cost Rs10 lakh, but some NGOs and friends chipped in. Kumar and his wife had earlier decided to abort their second baby as it too had thalassemia. But fortunately, “the third time my wife became pregnant (in pursuance of the doctor’s advice), the foetus was unaffected,” Kumar said here. So during the delivery of the third child (Pugazhendhi), the umbilical cord blood stem cell of the infant was saved. “We managed to collect 100ml of blood from the sibling’s umbilical cord and transferred it to our Lifecell Lab in Chennai,” said Abhaya. The cord blood stem cells were later separated and preserved at their laboratory free of cost.

After preserving the extracted cord blood stem cells for a year, the donor’s stem cells were injected into the patient’s body without surgery, explained Dr Revathi Raj. “It was like blood transfusion,” done in March 2009. Three weeks after the infusion, Thamirabharani started showing signs of recovery and today “the girl is completely cured of thalassemia”, the doctor added.

Thamirabharuni smiled as she was presented to reporters. She is one of the lucky few to survive this fatal disease as every year 10,000 children with thalassemia major are born in India.“I suffered a lot, and if not for my brother whose cord blood stem cell was transplanted into me, I would not have been around,” said Thamirabharani.  “Today, I feel fine, want to spring back to the playfield,” she said.

Thamirabharuni will go back to school from December, said her father. The little girl cheerfully chipped in to add: “I will study well and become a teacher.”

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