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Fifty years ago, only a handful of children with cancer survived their disease. Those who relapsed were doomed. Thanks to scientific achievements—many of which were pioneered at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital—that scenario has changed dramatically.
When St. Jude doctors began using bone marrow transplants for children with cancer, the procedures were available only to children with “perfect matches”—genetically matched siblings or matched, unrelated donors. Then, about 20 years ago, St. Jude pioneered a process known as a haploidentical transplant, which uses a donor—usually a parent—who is only a partial genetic match.
Today, the hospital performs more pediatric haploidentical transplants than any other medical facility in the country.
Wing Leung, MD, PhD, chair of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Cellular Therapy, compares the transplant process to a team sport.
“If any single player is not playing well, then you can lose the game,” he says. “Everybody must do their job to win. It’s extremely difficult to do transplants, and it’s a rushed process. That’s why team excellence is so important. Everybody accommodates each other and works together. Our behind-the-scenes heroes are the faculty, staff and clinicians in the Blood Bank, the laboratories, the clinic, and all the other areas who make our transplant program successful.”
At St. Jude, bone marrow transplant survival has more than doubled in recent years for young, high-risk leukemia patients. Children receiving haploidentical transplants enjoyed the most significant gains—a 76 percent increase. Results of a study published last year in the journal Blood are believed to be the best ever reported.
A transplant is an extremely complex process that involves destroying the child’s diseased bone marrow and replacing it with healthy cells that reproduce, creating a vibrant immune system and eradicating the cancer.
The experience and facilities available at St. Jude enable our transplant team to save the lives of many children and teens who need transplants.