Page last updated at 00:30 GMT, Sunday, 14 February 2010

'An unknown baby's cord blood saved my life'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Philip Meehan
Philip now campaigns for others

Philip Meehan's life was saved by a baby he will never know.

When he was diagnosed with leukaemia doctors told him he desperately needed a bone marrow transplant.

As an only child, he had no family matches and despite a six-month search the NHS and the Anthony Nolan Trust failed to find a living donor.

"They were getting a bit twitchy because I had to have a bone marrow transplant, so they talked to me about a relatively new, but not experimental, treatment from cord blood," he said.

'Huge potential'

One single umbilical cord was found to be a partial match - not the best odds, but Philip's only realistic hope.

But others might not be as lucky.

Taking cord blood does not impinge on the mother or baby - it is just recycling
Philip Meehan

The Anthony Nolan Trust says 50,000 cord bloods would meet the UK's need for transplant and research purposes.

Cord blood is the blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born. It is a rich source of stem cells, which can be used to treat conditions such as leukaemia.

Cord blood offers an alternative to using bone marrow, with the advantage of being immediately available and easier to match to a potential recipient.

Henny Braund, chief executive of the trust, would like to see far more cord blood collection facilities.

"Umbilical cord blood offers us huge potential to save not just a few, but many more lives from leukaemia," she said.

"There are the benefits these stem cells offer to regenerative medicine and research.

"But at the moment we're quite simply throwing away this opportunity.

"We do not have sufficient cord blood collection facilities in the UK, so valuable cord blood is being wasted once a mother has given birth.

"The Anthony Nolan Trust has had to import 268 cord blood units from abroad for transplant over the past four years.

"This is an unnecessary cost when we have the opportunity to collect this cord blood at home."

'Fantastic resource'

Professor Ghulam Mufti, director of pathology at King's College Hospital and a haemato-oncology consultant, said cord cells were a fantastic resource.

"These cells can go on to create a whole range of different cells in the blood or the immune system," he said.

"If someone needs new bone marrow cells, the stem cells find their way into the bone marrow and start creating healthy cells to replace the damaged ones.

"This makes cord blood a viable alternative to bone marrow transplants for patients who either cannot find a marrow donor match or in whom a previous transplant has failed.

"It is much easier to match cord blood than bone marrow - for a bone marrow transplant, we have to find a donor who has a 95% perfect match to the patient, or their body will just reject it.

"But with the stem cells from umbilical cord blood, that match only has to be 70 to 80% perfect for the transplant to work."

'Just recycling'

Philip, aged 43, from West Sussex, says that he is certainly very grateful for the unknown mother and baby who saved him.

"Not a day goes by without my wondering about the baby who loaned me some of their stem cells.

"Due to the trust's programme of anonymity I will never know who they are, but I will always be grateful and wish them the same hope for a long life and a healthy future as they gave me," said the sound engineer.

"Taking cord blood does not impinge on the mother or baby - it is just recycling."

Cord collection. Pic caption: James King-Holmes/Science Photo Library
Cords are otherwise thrown away

Philip's health problems started in 2007 after he went for a holiday to the Lake District.

"I was just tired every day and when I came back I was still tired and out of breath and feeling a bit rubbish so I went along to see my GP for a blood test.

"That day I signed for another six months on my flat and then that afternoon got a call to go to the Royal Sussex in Brighton saying 'bring your pyjamas'. I was there for six weeks."

Six months later he had the transplant at King's College Hospital, which has a collection service.

"You can't really say you are ever 100% cured, but they say the longer you go the higher the chances you won't relapse," he said.

"I still get very tired and have the memory of a goldfish, but my strength is coming back.

"In terms of getting back to normal, I am not back to normal, but I am pretty close."

But Philip said he had nearly turned down any treatment fearing it would be too difficult.

"I just thought it was going to be very difficult doing this when I don't have a reason to.

"I am not married, not in a relationship and do not have children.

"The thing that made a difference to me was meeting someone who had gone through it and proved it was not a death sentence and since then I have become a bit of an advocate."

He now lobbies MPs for better collection and is helping the hospital and Anthony Nolan Trust raise the profile of cord collection provision.

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