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Making the most of umbilical cord blood


Scientists can now multiply, or ‘expand’ the stem cells in cord blood, offering the best regenerative treatment for blood cancer yet.

A paper published in The Lancet this week may transform the way blood cancer is treated, greatly improving patient outcomes.

Why isn’t cord blood used for more stem cell transplants?

More than 100,000 patients worldwide have a blood stem cell transplant each year. Blood or haematopoetic, stem cells (HSCs) have the unique ability to regenerate to replace diseased and damaged blood cells, helping the immune system to recover from conditions such as leukaemia, lymphoma and sickle cell disease.

But many of these treatments fail as the result of graft versus host disease (GVHD). Although cord blood stem cells are associated with a lower incidence of GVHD, umbilical stem cells are used less frequently than stem cells from other sources.

The stem cells used for these transplants are mainly harvested from the blood itself (50% of treatments) or from bone marrow (43% of cases). Only 7% of transplants use stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood.

Although the rate of graft versus host disease when using umbilical cord blood stem cells is low, these cells are rarely used because the cords are small and do not contain a sufficient quantity of cells to treat an adult.

Dr. Sauvageau, Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) of the Université de Montréal.

Now scientists can multiply the stem cells in cord blood

The clinical trial described in The Lancet uses the UM171 molecule, named in honour of the Université de Montréal, to multiply the number of stem cells present in a unit of umbilical cord blood.

Scientists are able to “expand” the stem cells by 10- to 80-fold:

In just seven days, UM171 multiplies the stem cells by an average of 30 fold, while at the same time providing a rejuvenating effect on the cells by blocking the aging process.

Dr. Sauvageau

The molecule is the culmination of a dozen years of research carried out by Dr. Sauvageau’s team of biologists and a team of chemists led by Anne Marinier, a professor in the Université de Montréal’s Department of Chemistry and Principal Investigator and Director of the Drug Discovery Core Facility at IRIC.

The most impressive result is the low mortality rate associated with UM171 transplantation compared to conventional cord transplantation.

Dr. Sandra Cohen

Expanded cord blood achieves best patient outcomes ever recorded

A follow-up article in Medical Express explains that the results have far exceeded expectations. “None of the patients developed chronic autoimmune disease as a result of the transplant, and only one patient died from complications during the trials.”

But the most impressive result was the low mortality rate associated with UM171 transplantation:

Not a single patient needed immunosuppression treatment after 13 months, whereas with normal transplants, 50 percent of patients require such treatment at that point. No other biotechnology procedure has produced these kinds of results.

Dr. Sauvageau

With a trial already approved in the US which will use expanded cord blood stem cells to treat leukaemia patients, there are hopes that this therapy will soon be available to patients worldwide.

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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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