Donated cord blood helps save Elizabeth's life

"What do I do if I'm not a match?"

That was the first thought Sharon had as Dr Richard Mitchell broke the news that her two-year-old daughter would need a bone marrow transplant.

Elizabeth was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in January and underwent three months of chemotherapy before being transferred to Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, for further treatment. 

With chemotherapy proving ineffective, a bone marrow transplant was Elizabeth’s only option.

Blood and marrow transplants are often the only cure option for children with leukaemias, lymphomas and many other inherited diseases of the blood and immune system. They are a high risk procedure, fraught with possible complications and side effects.

There’s only a handful of experts in the country to conduct this life-saving work. Thankfully some of these specialists work at the Kids Cancer Centre (KCC).

Faced with limited family donor options, Elizabeth’s oncology team turned to the international cord blood registry and incredibly found not one, but two perfect matches for her transplant.

Elizabeth’s mum, Sharon, had never heard of a cord blood transplant before but it ultimately turned their world around for the better.

“It’s made such a difference. Today she is 81 days post-transplant and ticking all the boxes,” Sharon said.

“It’s been smooth sailing compared to what we’ve been through.”

Cord blood is the blood left in the placenta and umbilical cord after the delivery of a baby. It is usually discarded following the birth, but for many patients like Elizabeth it’s a viable source of blood stem cells for transplantations to treat serious cancers and blood related disorders.

The Network hosts one of only three public cord blood banks nationally, with the Sydney Cord Blood Bank helping to store donated cord blood from new mums at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital, Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown.

Dr Guy Klamer, Director of the Sydney Cord Blood Bank, said that donated cord blood they store can help future patients.

“Cord blood can be frozen and stored for more than 20 years in cord blood banks without loss of potency to the blood stem cells,” Guy said.

“To date, we have released 583 units and the vast majority have been used to treat acute myelogenous leukaemia and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in adults and children.”

For the KCC’s Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program, cord blood banks play a vital role in cancer treatment, helping find the best match possible for their patients.

“Often in kids with very high-risk cancers like Elizabeth, it is a race to get to transplant.  Cord blood has significant advantages in this scenario because unlike traditional bone marrow donors which can take months to find, a compatible cord blood, because it is collected ahead of time, tested and frozen in a network of banks around the world can take just 3 weeks to find. This can make all the difference,” Director of the Transplant Program and Kids Cancer Centre, Professor Tracey O’Brien said.

“At the KCC we’re proud to continually be at the forefront of advancements in cellular and immunotherapy to give children like Elizabeth the best chance of survival and work towards a world where all children are free from cancer.”

Sharon is forever grateful to Elizabeth’s oncology team and the anonymous cord blood donor who saved her little girl.

“Without cord blood, I might not have my little girl right now. It’s the reality of the scenario as harsh as that is,” Sharon said.

“At the start they gave us two months that she’d live, if she even lasted that. Without a doubt, the way she was heading it just wasn’t working. But one cord blood, one child’s umbilical cord, that’s all it took to save her.

“For that family who donated their cord blood, I will forever be thankful.”

While Elizabeth is still in treatment, her future is bright and there is a big chance she’ll go on to live a very happy and successful life. Sharon is now a passionate advocate for cord blood and encourages everyone who can to donate.

“Donations of any kind need to be at the top of everyone’s to do list. Whether it’s blood, plasma, cord blood or being an organ donor – anything helps,” Sharon said.

“For every cord, that’s another child that could be saved.”

To celebrate World Cord Blood Day on November 15, the SCBB is organising tours of the facility in 2022 once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. To register interest, contact enquiries@scbb.com.au.

To find out more about the life-changing work of the SCBB, visit https://www.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/find-a-service/health-medical-service...