A woman who is awaiting her third liver transplant in five years is set to undergo a pioneering stem cell transplant to save her life.
Alex Keel, 29, from Cheltenham, suffers from a deadly liver condition which can often be cured through a transplant.
But two donor organs have proved unsuccessful and doctors have said it is unlikely she will be offered a fourth if her next one fails.
Her condition has worsened so much that experts are already planning to move her to the top of the list for a transplant because without one she will die.
Liver specialists are planning a procedure to protect her new organ when she gets it – which will make her the first patient in the UK to undergo such treatment.
Mrs Keel suffers from Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), which experts think is caused by a faulty immune system triggering liver damage.
More than 300 people a year are diagnosed with the condition that causes bile to build up instead of being washed away by the liver.
This leads to scarring of the liver and organ failure in many cases.
For many sufferers with the condition, a liver transplant is life-saving and the disease doesn’t always come back.
But in her case, it has now returned twice and doctors fear that it will keep on coming back.
She said: ‘With the first two transplants I didn’t worry but now I’m needing a third I’m beginning to get anxious about dying from this disease. It’s got a hold of me and won’t go away.
‘Surgically it becomes harder to do repeat transplants and they might take the view someone else is more deserving if my transplants keep on failing.’
Mrs Keel was healthy and fit until she was struck down in 2011, but it took months to get a diagnosis.
One of the tell tale signs of the disease is skin itching but her doctors at first thought she had a skin disease.
Even when she turned yellow, a sign of live damage, doctors failed to realise what was wrong.
With her condition worsening, she was referred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, the UK’s largest liver disease centre, who diagnosed her.
Experts put her straight on an urgent waiting list before her initial transplant went through in January 2012.
Doctors hoped it would work successfully, but it lasted just three years before it began to fail.
Last year doctors replaced her organ with another new donation. But it started to falter in April this year – little more than a year after surgery.
She has now become so poorly doctors are already planning to move her to the top of the list for a transplant.
Mrs Keel added: ‘I used to weigh nine stone and until recently I was seven and a half stone. Now I’m around six stone nine.
‘I’m quite weak and get exhausted a lot, but I still walk 45 minutes a day. It exhausts me but I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible.’
Specialists now plan to protect her third liver with a stem cell transplant – which would be the first time the surgery has been attempted in the UK.
Gideon Hirschfield, a liver disease specialist in Birmingham, said: ‘There is no cure for this condition, some drugs help reduce symptoms but if things get serious transplant is our only option.
‘Last year alone, despite how rare PSC is, more than 1 in 10 liver transplants for adults in the UK were for PSC, and transplant is not a cure, as disease can sadly recur.
‘The people who get PSC are – like Alex – frequently young patients in the prime of their lives. This disease can lead to transplants in children as well.’
Her friend Christine Elliot said: ‘Her positivity and her determination not to pity herself is nothing short of amazing.
‘She does get scared and sad at times, but she does not let her condition or her feelings get in the way of leading as normal life a life as possible.’
Work colleagues are trying to raise thousands of pounds to support Mrs Keel after a third transplant until she is well enough to go back to work.
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BSc (Hons) Microbiology
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.