Last month CellPlan joined an international community of cord blood charities and storage facilities in celebrating the inaugural World Cord Blood Day. The aim of the day was to raise awareness about the therapeutic properties of cord-blood and to challenge the routine disposal of umbilical cord blood when a baby is born.
One of the highlights of the programme, organised by Save the Cord Foundation and hosted by Charis Ober, was an interview with Dr Eliane Gluckman, the world’s first doctor to perform a cord blood transplant.
“Today we are making history,” said Ober as she asked the legendary haematologist to talk about the contribution of cord blood to medical science. “I’m very glad to talk about cord blood,” Dr Gluckman smiled, “it’s my baby.”
I’m very glad to talk about cord blood. It’s my baby. (Dr Eliane Gluckman)
Dr Gluckman, now Professor Gluckman, made cord blood history when she performed the world’s first umbilical cord blood transplant in 1988. Since that time, cord blood stem cells have been used in over 40,000 procedures and are routinely used to treat over 80 diseases of the blood and immune systems such as leukaemia, neuroblastoma and sickle cell.
How did the first cord blood transplant come about?
“We had already shown that cord blood could successfully be used as a source of haematopoietic stem cells,” the parent cells to all other blood cells in the body, said Dr Gluckman. Bone marrow had been used for some time as a source of stem cells but it was difficult to find a match between patient and donor. Dr Gluckman and her colleagues around the world were looking for a new source of stem cells and began to look at the composition of cord blood.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Dr Gluckman’s colleague Hal Broxmeyer and his team were treating a little boy with Fanconi’s anaemia. Matthew Farrow was born with the rare and fatal blood disease and was terribly ill at the time that his mother was expecting his younger sister, Alison. Having heard about the pioneering work in cord blood, Matthew’s parents made the brave decision to store their Alison’s umbilical cord blood and to use the stem cells it contained to treat Matthew – an operation that had never been performed before.
“I had worked on this for many years and understood very well how to do the transplant.” Dr Gluckman explained, “The problem was where to do it… so the cells were transported from the US to Paris with the patient. More than 25 years later he is alive and well.”
How did it feel to perform the world’s first cord blood transplant?
“For me” said Dr Gluckman, “it was something that was new, and I was excited of course, but it was something that made sense.” The transplant itself “was easy. It wasn’t different from other transplants except that it was cord blood.” The risk was also reduced, as Alison’s bone marrow was available, “as a back up.”
For me it was something that was new, and I was excited of course, but it was something that made sense. (Dr Eliane Gluckman)
When the first transplant was performed doctors knew very little about the immunology of the umbilical cord and were keen to explore its potential for the treatment of adults and where the donor and patient were not perfectly matched. “It was an interesting period. We worked in close collaboration with transplant centres. It was an effort of international collaboration.”
What does the future hold for cord blood treatments?
Dr Gluckman is optimistic about the potential of cord blood for a great many applications: to treat children with medical disorders; for gene therapy; and as a more efficient source of stem cells than adult cells. “Things have been changing as always in medicine. We see a new possibility to use mismatched family donors, for haematological indications, non-identical transplants. The field is not finished.”
“Collecting cord blood with family blood banking begins to make some sense,” said Gluckman, “these cells can be expanded.” The expansion of cells would mean that a sample from one donor would provide “more than enough cells to use on a patient.”
“There are many possibilities now. In the future: more cord blood transplants; and different cells, mesenchymal cells are very interesting and very important for autoimmune diseases and anti-inflammatory conditions… There are a lot of things to do in the future.”
Medicine is an on-going process and there are many developments but I think there is a lot of basic science that makes this product unique and we have not yet explored all the possibilities. (Dr Eliane Gluckman)
Protect your family with cord blood storage and insurance
CellPlan is the world’s first insurer to specialise in cord blood stem cell care. Founded in collaboration with leading stem cell scientists, CellPlan is committed to protecting families from the costs of stem cell therapies. Our plan includes access to medical experts as well as covering the costs of treatment, medicines, travel and accommodation.
Umbilical cord blood is collected shortly after the birth of your child and processed and stored by your chosen cord blood bank. CellPlan works with the most accredited banks in the world, to ensure that families receive the best possible care. You can search for a cord blood bank here and apply for CellPlan protection here.