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New Senate Bill Will Help Save Lives, Duke Expert Says

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

The newly passed Senate Bill 1317 will more than triple the availability of cord blood as a source of life-saving stem cells to treat a range of fatal diseases for which no other cure exists, says Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, who pioneered the use of umbilical cord blood in 1993 as a cure for fatal childhood cancers and genetic diseases.

Kurtzberg is the director of the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, a public cord blood bank at Duke University Medical Center. Kurtzberg's team has performed 650 cord blood transplants in children -– more than any other center in the world.

In recent years, Kurtzberg has expanded cord blood's application to treat a wide range of genetic diseases, like Krabbe Disease and Hurler Syndrome, which cause progressive physical and cognitive deficits leading to death in early childhood.

Kurtzberg served as an expert to Congress during the drafting of the bill, which passed on Friday. The bill will fund the addition of 150,000 units of high-quality, ethnically diverse cord blood to the current inventory stored in public cord blood banks. The bill will also establish a national cord blood registry through which doctors can search for and identify matching units of cord blood –- and adult bone marrow donors -– in one central location.

"It takes front-end money to build the inventory of cord blood units that we need for adults and children who are searching for a suitable match," Kurtzberg said. "Federal funding is critical to providing a national infrastructure to support the use and continued research into the benefits of cord blood."

Until now, there has been little federal subsidy to defray the considerable costs of collecting, processing and storing cord blood units -– a fee of about $1,600 per unit, Kurtzberg said. Cord blood must be collected shortly after the birth of a newborn and properly processed to ensure the viability of the blood for use in transplants.

Kurtzberg said the new bill will expand access for thousands of children and adults by increasing the number of available units. More than 14,000 people need bone marrow transplants each year, but many cannot find suitably matched bone marrow donors. Cord blood provides greater access to transplantation for many of these patients because, unlike bone marrow, cord blood does not need to perfectly match the patient's "HLA" blood components. It is also easier and faster to obtain than bone marrow, she said.

Moreover, increasing cord blood units should add a higher percentage of ethnically diverse units for minority patients as well as units large enough to sustain an adult through transplant, she said. Currently, only 10 percent of cord blood units are large enough for an adult's physical size.

"Our team has demonstrated that cord blood can correct the enzyme deficiencies in children with rare metabolic diseases such as Hurlers Syndrome, Krabbe Disease, MLD, ALD and Sanfilippo Syndrome, but we need to broaden the ethnic diversity and size of the available units for both children and adults," she said.

While cord blood is proving its capabilities in correcting a wide number of diseases, Kurtzberg said its benefits do not exclude the need to explore embryonic stem cells as a source for curing disease.

"Multiple stem cell sources should be investigated for their ability to repair and restore injured tissues and damaged organ systems," Kurtzberg said. "We simply won't know the potential of each source unless we test their abilities and compare their benefits in patients."
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