Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Health
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Medical notes 
Background Briefings 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 17:49 GMT
Risky operation to cure sickle cell disease

The experimental technique appears to have been successful

A teenager has undergone a groundbreaking bone marrow transplant in an attempt to cure life-threatening sickle cell disease.

Keone Penn is believed to be the first patient to be given cells from the umbilical cord of an unrelated child.

The operation carries approximately a one-in-three mortality rate, and would only be contemplated in the more severe cases of the illness.

A British expert has compared the operation, performed in Atlanta at the weekend, to a game of "roulette" - with the child's life at stake.

They were lucky to get away with it
Dr Irene Roberts, UK sickle cell expert
But the 13-year-old, although apparently free of disease, now faces an anxious six-month wait to see if the transplant will be successful.

Sickle cell disease, prevalent in the Afro-Caribbean community, is a hereditary disease caused by defective bone marrow.

This produces irregularly shaped cells which can fail to pass through narrow blood vessels, causing extreme pain, tissue damage and even fatal strokes.

Dr Andrew Yeager, who performed the procedure, said: "The cord blood cells are fully operational, making all healthy blood cells. We see no signs of sickle cells."

His patient was more confident, saying in a statement: "I'm talking, my heart is beating and my brain is working - I made it."

However, Dr Irene Roberts, a consultant paediatric haematologist and sickle cell expert from Hammersmith Hospital, London, said that the US doctors had been "lucky to get away with it".

She said: "I don't think it is likely to ever become a first choice treatment for every child, because there are so many other therapies, involving drugs or gene therapy.

"The mortality rate for this is around 30%, whereas on average, a child with sickle cell disease has a 3% chance of dying before the age of 20.

"Some children, perhaps those who have had a stroke, are at a far greater risk of having another, fatal stroke, so the risks of not treating must outweigh the risks of treating."

It is thought that there will be approximately 12,000 people in the UK with sickle cell disease by the year 2000.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

See also:
25 Oct 99 |  Health
Banking on umbilical blood
06 Jan 99 |  Health
Blood tests urged for ethnic workers

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other Health stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Health stories