New stem-cell transplant offers new hope to cancer patients

When Bernita Glass was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in February 2015, her life depended on a stem cell transplant.

Despite facing an aggressive leukemia, Bernita didn’t necessarily feel sick. “I had a rash on my hand that was itching and I was retaining fluids.”

It wasn’t until her blood work revealed an extremely high white blood count that Glass, a head start director in Arkansas, received her cancer diagnosis. As with many transplant patients, finding an identical match remained crucial. For Bernita, an African- American, that obstacle was even greater due to the donor pool mix. Without a lifesaving stem-cell transplant, her prognosis was poor, with survival estimated at only six months.

About the same time, Dr. Salil Goorha, medical director of Baptist Cancer Center’s Malignant Hematology and Transplant Program, attended a conference and learned about a new procedure known as haploidentical, or half-matched, transplant. Pioneered at Johns Hopkins and performed at only a few centers across the country, the procedure requires only a 50 percent match.

“We perform transplants to save lives, and we want to match the human leukocyte antigen (HLA). When we look at a match, genetics and ethnicity are key. Asians and African-Americans are particularly vulnerable when finding a match because the donor population pool for those races is smaller,” said Goorha.

Haploidentical was originally used for sickle cell anemia patients but now includes cancer patients. Stem cells live in donor bone marrow. By transplanting stem cells, the idea is to give new life to a sick immune system trying to fight disease. Researchers discovered when patients received cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug, it not only kills the cells that cause graft-versus-host disease, but it preserves the stem cells and the cells that destroy the cancer.

“In stem cell transplants, we first look for 100 percent match. With haplo, we can rely on a 50 percent genetic similarity from a relative,” says Goorha.

When looking at donors, Bernita found her 29-year old-son proved to be the best fit, even though all the siblings were tested. “We prefer younger donors who are stronger,” said Dr. Goorha.

In February 2015, Bernita became the first adult at Baptist Memphis to undergo a haploidentical transplant. Other than experiencing early complications, she recovered and her cancer has gone into remission. She has returned to work under close supervision by Dr. Goorha, who expresses equal gratification.

“I was led here for a purpose. And that purpose is to give great care.”