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BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 11 October 2001
Matthew Farrow was born with a rare and fatal blood disease, Fanconi's anaemia. His family and doctors thought he was going to die. Instead, aged just five, he became the first person in the world to be given a radical new treatment that few believed would work. It saved his life.
Rebuilding the blood
The treatment was remarkably simple. A small quantity of blood taken from a newborn baby's umbilical cord and placenta was infused into him. Thanks to this cord blood, Matthew Farrow is now a healthy teenager and the treatment he helped to pioneer is giving hope to hundreds of critically ill children around the world.
Cord blood contains a large number of blood stem cells, the mysterious factory cells that make all the red and white blood cells our body needs. Stem cells can rebuild a sick child's blood system in just a few weeks, by producing healthy new blood cells.
Until Matthew's case, babies' umbilical cords and placentas were just thrown away at birth. Established medical thought said the only source of blood stem cells was the bone marrow and the only treatment for children with advanced blood cancers was a bone marrow transplant.
One in three affected children cannot find a suitable bone marrow donor, and there was a desperate need for an alternative.
The first doctors to suggest cord blood as an answer were dismissed as dreamers.
But pioneering work over the last twenty years, mainly in America, has shown that the tiny quantity of blood contained in a newborn's umbilical cord and placenta is rich in the crucial stem cells. It is now being used to help to treat a broad range of blood cancers and serious genetic blood diseases.
However, even its advocates admit that cord blood is no miracle cure. Cord blood is a significant medical breakthrough, but it cannot save everyone who is treated with it.
This powerful and moving film follows patients and their doctors as they go through this arduous new treatment. Not all patients survive the transplant. However, for some patients this treatment is a lifeline when there is no option of a bone marrow transplant. Since 1990, over a thousand lives have been saved by this new treatment.
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If you want to find out about treatments for blood disorders, you can read our printer-friendly Actionline Factsheet.
Cord Blood Characteristics: Role in Stem Cell Transplantation
Editors: Cohen, Gluckman, Rubinstein and Madrigal
Publisher: M. Dunitz, London, 2000
Imperial Cancer Research Fund
Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide
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