Leukaemia and cord blood transplantation

Keegan’s story

Keegan Doheney was just 2 years old when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Fortunately, Keegan’s doctors were able to get the leukaemia into remission, but his parents knew that there was always a chance of a relapse.

Keegan’s mum, Wendy, found out about cord blood banking when she was pregnant with her second child. and decided to book the service, knowing the peace of mind it would give. This proved to be an incredibly astute decision.

Aged 5, Keegan relapsed and needed a stem cell transplant to rebuild his immune and blood system following chemotherapy. The cord blood saved from Keldan’s birth proved to be a perfect match for Keegan. The treatment was successful and Keegan has been healthy ever since. The brothers have forged a strong bond and Keegan has gone on to excel at school, leading a healthy and active life. “Basically,” says Keegan, “my little brother saved my life.”

“If this story touches one other family and helps them, then they’re both heroes. Cord blood saved our lives: saved my son’s life, and showed me what life is all about.” (Wendy Doheney)

Leukaemia – a cancer of the blood

There are around 9,500 new diagnoses of leukaemia in the UK every year. Leukaemia usually starts in the bone marrow, where new blood cells are made and lead to the overproduction of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system that normally defends the body against infection.

In healthy people, blood stem cells (haematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs) in the bone marrow divide to produce more stem cells or immature cells that become mature blood cells over time. Blood stem cells can become myeloid stem cells and go on to become red blood cells, platelets or white of blood cells. Or, they become lymphoid stem cells and eventually one of three types of specialist white blood cells (B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes or killer cells).

The different types of leukaemia are defined by the type of white blood cell affected (myeloid or lymphatic) and the way the disease progresses. The main types of leukaemia are:

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)
  • Hairy cell leukaemia (HCL)

The treatment needed depends on the type of leukaemia. Stem cell transplants have been used to successfully treat the most common forms of leukaemia: AML, ALL, CML and CLL.

Stem cell transplants for leukaemia

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used to kill the cancer cells in the body of leukaemia patients. Unfortunately, chemotherapy and radiotherapy also kill the stem cells in bone marrow.

Blood, or haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), are the precursors of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Following chemotherapy or radiotherapy HSCs from the patient or a donor can be replaced by a drip into a vein.

A stem cell transplant is similar to a bone marrow transplant, but blood counts recover more quickly, so the patient is at risk of infection for a shorter time.

Umbilical cord blood transplant (CBT)

The umbilical cord and placenta are very rich in stem cells that can be used to treat leukaemia. Because cord blood stem cells are so young, they are more energetic, powerful and healthy than adult stem cells. Cord blood transplants are most often used for children because of the smaller amounts of stem cells collected. A double cord transplant is one solution. 3 There are also many promising studies into the expansion of cord blood HSCs for therapeutic use.

Graft versus host disease (GvHD)

Blood diseases can be treated with the patient’s own stem cells (autologous transplantation), or with the stem cells of a matched donor (allogeneic transplantation). Graft versus host disease is a complication that can occur in allogeneic transplantation when the white blood cells in the donated stem cells attack the cells of the recipient.

Recent studies show that cord blood transplantation results in fewer cases of GvHD than bone marrow transplantation.

At the University of Colorado Cancer Center, 51 leukaemia patients receiving a cord blood transplant (CBT) were compared with 57 patients receiving bone marrow transplants from matched, unrelated donors (MUD). 3 years after the transplant, overall rates of chronic GVHD were 44% following MUD and 8% following CBT. Patients receiving CBT were also less likely to need immunosuppression and ‘less likely to experience late infections and hospitalisations.’

There is clear evidence that cord blood outperforms cells from matched, unrelated donors (Dr Jonathan Gutman, Clinical Director of Allogeneic Stem Cell Transplantation at University of Colorado Hospital)


How to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood and tissue

Organising the collection, processing and storage of your baby’s umbilical cord blood and tissue is quick and easy. Click here to start the process, or here to find out more about our personalised service.


  1. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/leukaemia/incidence#heading-Zero
  2. http://www.leukaemiacare.org.uk/leukaemia
  3. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/acute-lymphoblastic-leukaemia-all/treatment/bone-marrow-stem-cell-transplant/stem-cell-transplant
  4. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?cond=&term=cord+blood+expansion&cntry1=&state1=&recrs=
  5. https://bloodwise.org.uk/research/graft-versus-host-disease-gvhd
  6. http://www.bloodjournal.org/content/113/11/2410
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27400068
  8. sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160726221201.htm
  9. http://www.cordbloodaware.org/why-bank-cord-blood/case-studies/keegan-doheney/

The information in this article is for information only and is not intended to replace the advice of a medical expert. If you have any health concerns you should discuss them with your doctor.

stem cell preservation

BSc (Hons) Microbiology

Chief Executive Officer | Biovault Family

Biovault Family CEO, Kate Sneddon, joined Biovault in July 2009 and became Chief Executive Officer in 2016. As health industry professional her experience includes working as a microbiologist and leader at GSK for over 10 years. Her expertise in cord blood banking has been recognised in her awards, features in Parliamentary Review and Parents Guide to Cord Blood, as well as contributions to research with UCL and others.

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