Bone marrow transplants are often the best therapy for blood cancers like leukemia, but finding a matching donor can be tough.
Only 30 percent of family members match, which is why the potential of umbilical cord blood and its stem cells are the source of much hope.
Alexes Harris was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.
"They told me that initially, I'd have 18 to 24 months to live if I didn't have treatment and then ultimately a transplant," Harris, who is a leukemia survivor, said.
No one in her family was a bone marrow match and the two matches on the national registry declined to be donors. And there was another complicating factor: the odds of finding a donor for minorities like Harris are lower than they are for Caucasians.
Dr. Filippo Milano, director for the Program in Cord Blood Transplantation at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, stepped in. He told her about cord blood and his clinical trial.
"The main advantage of cord blood is cells come from the baby and the cells are naive, there is no necessary of matching 100 percent between the host and the donor," Milano said.
Milano said cord blood will work for 95 percent of cases. Cord blood is approved only for use in "hematopoietic stem cell transplantation" procedures, which are done in patients with disorders affecting the hematopoietic or blood-forming system.
That means cord blood stem cells can be used in the treatment of patients with blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas, as well as certain disorders of the blood and immune systems, like sickle cell disease.
However, Milano points out the downside is that cord blood doesn't have many stem cells. It takes twice as long for patients' immune systems to rebuild as it would with a bone marrow transplant.
Also, patients need two units, which costs 80,000 dollars. Dr. Milano's trial increased the number of stem cells in the lab, hoping to cut recovery time by a week.
"Cord blood really proved to be a very good source of stem cells, and we need to make sure that many centers keep doing it," Milano continued.
Now, Harris is raising awareness among different ethnic groups to get more participation on the bone marrow registry and for cord blood as an option.
"The parents who donated that umbilical cord saved my life, and I just feel like I need to make ... I need to make my cancer matter," Harris said.
Milano said leukemia patients who get cord blood seem to have fewer relapses.
He sees great potential for cord blood for blood cancers and maybe regenerative medicine.