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Half-match bone marrow transplants help save more lives

December 5, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
It may not be the perfect match, but doctors say it may be the perfect solution for those in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.

Leukemia and lymphoma are just a few of the life-threatening diseases marrow transplants can cure. But only one in three patients is able to find a donor in the family. The rest have to rely on an unrelated donor, and only half of those will find a perfect match. Now, a new alternative could change everything.

For Izzy Diaz-Tous and Cyd, art reflects life, and Cyd's paintings connect the couple.

Their journey took a scary turn when Diaz-Tous was diagnosed with AML, a type of leukemia. Doctors gave him six weeks to live.

"I've always been a fighting spirit and I said this will be a new challenge for me," Diaz-Tous said.

His only hope for a cure was a marrow transplant. But like 70 percent of others needing a one, Diaz-Tous couldn't find a matching donor in his family. He turned to the National Bone Marrow Registry, but out of 11 1/2 million people, there wasn't a single match.

It's something Dr. Ephraim Fuchs, associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wants to change.

"In the past you had to have a perfect match, otherwise the transplant was too toxic," said Dr. Fuchs.

But results from a recent national trial show by giving a patient chemotherapy three days after the transplant, patients can use a donor who is half-matched, meaning the marrow is half-identical to the patient's tissue type.

"Biological parents are half-matched, all children of the patient are half-matched," said Dr. Fuchs.

Treating blood cancer is only the beginning.

"Potentially we could be treating every patient who has AIDS or sickle cell disease or even autoimmune disease," said Dr. Fuchs.

As for Diaz-Tous, his son Alex was a half-match and their marrow transplant was a success: Diaz-Tous is now cancer free.

"The proudest thing he ever done is to give me life," he laughed.

Half-match marrow transplants are now being done at large medical centers all across the country. Plans are under way for a four-year randomized trial for the transplants in early 2012.