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3 minute read
Christine Gorman

It sounds like the sort of remedy a witch doctor might dream up: take blood from the discarded placenta of a newborn baby and inject it into a child suffering from leukemia. But it is not voodoo. According to a study of 25 children published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, the unusual treatment may work better than a bone-marrow transplant in treating the childhood cancer. Placental blood might even be used someday to treat other blood and immune-system disorders–from sickle-cell anemia to AIDS.

The procedure appears to solve a medical Catch-22. Although the transplantation of bone-marrow cells can restore the immune system of a child suffering from leukemia, hundreds of children in the U.S. die each year for lack of a suitable donor–this despite the fact that more than 2 million Americans have volunteered. The problem is that bone-marrow transplants require a far more precise match of tissue types–measured by six different genetic identity markers–than, say, heart or kidney transplants.

As the team of researchers from Duke University and the New York Blood Center reported last week, the blood from a placenta is much more forgiving–largely because the immune cells in a newborn baby have not yet learned to attack foreign proteins. More than half the young patients in the study were still alive at least a year after their placental infusion; one boy is thriving three years after treatment.

In addition, the supply of placentas from the 4 million babies born each year in the U.S. is virtually unlimited. That should dramatically cut the cost of infusion from its current level, a prohibitive $25,000 a treatment, and save the lives of patients for whom a suitable donor might not otherwise be found.

Researchers expect the technique will be applied to other diseases in perhaps five or 10 years. It holds particular promise for sickle-cell anemia, because finding tissue matches for African Americans (who are affected by the disease more often than any other racial group) has proved, for complex genetic reasons, especially difficult. The technique could also boost the damaged immune systems of AIDS patients, provided scientists first find a way to disrupt the reproductive cycle of the AIDS virus within the transplant candidate. “If the virus could be controlled,” says Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, one of the study’s coauthors, “the immune system could be replaced.”

–By Christine Gorman. Reported by Alice Park/New York

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