Earlier this year, a young man was the first adult to receive a cord blood transplant at UC Davis Health System. The milestone passed quietly but it marks a significant step in the changing face of bone marrow transplant medicine. Like most people currently receiving bone marrow transplants, he suffered from leukemia. Yet, unlike most recipients, he received life-giving stem cells from the umbilical cords of two unrelated donors. Bone marrow was not involved.
Bone marrow transplants have changed so much that UC Davis' own program – once called the Bone Marrow Transplant Program – is now called the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant Program. The name reflects future treatments that will emerge from current laboratory research, says Carol Richman, professor of internal medicine, hematology and oncology, and director of the program.
"The kinds of diseases and the treatment options that are becoming available are gradually increasing the number of people who can benefit from hematopoietic stem cell transplants," Richman says. Hematopoietic cells give rise to the different types of blood cells in the body.
First program in region
UC Davis' program performed the region's first adult bone marrow transplant in 1993. Since then, the program has expanded to include children and is the largest and most experienced of its kind in inland Northern California. Last year, about 40 adult hematopoietic stem cell transplants were performed, while 10 transplant recipients were children.
Douglas Taylor, associate professor of pediatrics, is director of the pediatric portion of the program.
"I think a combined adult-pediatric program allows interaction and cross-fertilization that better informs all transplants," he says.
The program's growth in both number of patients treated and range of services is largely due to four factors, Richman says.
A boost for research
The expansion of the program has allowed it to become more self-sufficient. In 2005, the program established its own facilities for harvesting and processing donated cells. This not only cuts costs by eliminating the need for the use of a commercial facility, but it opens up all kinds of research possibilities, Taylor says. "Because hematopoietic stem cells are processed and stored here at the university, many of them will be available for research and will permit more rapid translation of basic research to patient care," Taylor predicts.
Though Richman has seen the field of hematopoietic stem cell transplant grow and change over her 30-year career, she believes scientists are just beginning to realize the full potential of stem cells to treat human disease. She and Taylor are both excited about being a part of the stem cell program at UC Davis.
"We're going to have new scientists at UC Davis developing a broader understanding of ways that we can use stem cells for regeneration," Richman says. "We'll be involved in helping to translate that work into clinical practice."