To the Edge and Back
On November 15, 2000, at age 42, Alan was the recipient of an adult blood cell transplant – the modern day equivalent of a bone marrow transplant. This is one of the most risky medical procedures known. To accomplish a successful transplant, Alan was taken to the edge of life and death.
The transplant had three steps. First, Alan’s leukemia was put into remission with three rounds of around-the-clock, week-long intensive chemotherapy. Second, his bone marrow (and by association his blood-borne immune system of disease-fighting white and other blood cells) was destroyed using high dose chemotherapy. Third, he received new adult blood cells from the blood of his genetically matched donor brother, Eric.
An “Instant” Oil Change
Eric’s new cells headed straight for Alan’s bone marrow. There, they became the building blocks for the production of new bone marrow from which Alan’s new blood system was born. Voilà, an instant oil change – except that in Alan’s case, the preparation for the oil change took four months and his immune system would take years to rebuild. Until then, although he is an adult, his immune system is still a child.
During the first several months after the transplant, when Alan’s infant immune system was rebuilding itself with Eric’s new adult blood cells, Alan could easily have died from pneumonia resulting from a simple head cold or an infection from a cut or scratch.
The blood cells Alan received came from the blood of his donor brother, Eric.
Eric jokes that as a result of receiving his adult blood stem cells, Alan may some day develop Eric’s passion for cognac and cigars.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” Alan laughs, “but I’m really looking forward to the day.”
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 21 of Alan and Cecilia’s, inspirational new book, Climb Back from Cancer.
On October 6, my mother’s birthday, I watched with excitement as Eric donated what he called his “mother cells.” While he joked with the nurses, snacked happily on yogurt and cheese and sipped on apple juice, the buoyant staff of the Apheresis Unit of the Foothills Medical Centre efficiently ran his blood through a centrifuge and separated out about two hundred million of his adult blood stem cells, roughly the volume of a couple of cups of coffee. In six hours, they had collected all they needed. From there, the precious donation went straight into a cryofreezer of liquid nitrogen for preservation at minus 180 degrees [C] until the moment of transplant – if I decided to go ahead with one.
Stem cells are the mothers of all cells. Mature stem cells produce specific types of offspring cells. From adult blood stem cells, for example, come red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and the many other types of blood cells. Immature stem cells, on the other hand, have no fixed task yet. Called “embryonic stem cells” because they derive from human embryos, they have not yet decided what type of cells they want to be “when they grow up.” With scientific intervention, embryonic stem cells may be able to be directed to become any of the over two hundred types of cells in the human body. In theory, these new nerve, pancreatic or lung cells (to name just a few) could be used to regenerate damaged, deformed, surgically removed or diseased organs. Embryonic stem cell research may hold the potential of curing spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer and many other infirmities. But this type of research is embroiled in controversy. It raises questions about when human life begins and whether the death of embryonic cells during stem cell research constitutes homicide. This ethical debate does not touch an adult blood stem cell transplant for leukemia. No human embryos are involved in adult blood stem cell donation or transplant. The only human who may lose life is the recipient of the transplant if it fails.
Stem Cell Research
On November 2, 2004, in response to the Bush administration’s 2001 decision to severely curtail stem cell research, the citizens of California voted to approve a $3 billion bond issue to help fund stem cell research in the state.
“I am alive today because of stem cell research,” Alan says. “If we can save more lives, I think we should try. The potential benefits to humankind are absolutely massive. It’s an Everest of an opportunity.”