The Cord that Binds: How Cord Blood Bank of Arkansas Saves Lives

During a family outing to the Little Red River in February 2008, Jennifer and Brian Odle of North Little Rock noticed their 18-month old daughter Amelia’s eye looked red and irritated.

“We watched it for a couple of days; a nurse thought it was pinkeye [conjunctivitis] and would go away,” says Jennifer Odle, a cytotechnologist in the pathology department of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

But working in pathology taught Jennifer that every lump and bump can be worrisome. “We took her to a pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, then to an eye clinic, then for scans and biopsies on Valentine’s Day,” she says, adding that the meaning of that day has been changed forever for her.

The diagnosis came about two weeks later: Acute myelogenous leukemia, an aggressive disease that requires instant action.

Amelia’s doctors emphasized the urgency in getting the disease in remission, then replacing Amelia’s damaged bone marrow with healthy bone marrow stem cells that matched hers. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy began immediately at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

“We were in the hospital about a month the first time,” Jennifer says. “At 18 months, Amelia thought that was normal, a part of everyday life. She got used to people coming by at all hours and checking on her.”
The Odles thought their older daughter Madelyn, now 7, might be a bone marrow match for Amelia, but she wasn’t.

“Only 25 percent of family members are matches,” Jennifer says. “To go on a [bone marrow] donor list takes a while. Since this is an aggressive form of leukemia you can’t wait long—you need a transplant. That’s when the doctors introduced the idea of a cord blood transplant.”

Harvested from umbilical cords and placentas after the birth of healthy children, cord blood cells are a resource for stem cells that can be used to regenerate healthy blood cells to aid patients who need bone marrow transplants.

Collection of the cells, which until recently were discarded as medical waste, is quick and painless—less invasive and complicated than obtaining bone marrow stem cells.

 “Cord blood is used as a source of cells for a transplant when there is no matched family donor and there is no time to wait for a search for an unrelated adult donor,” says Dr. Michele Fox, director of stem cell therapy and transfusion medicine at UAMS and medical director of the Cord Blood Bank of Arkansas.

A sample of Amelia’s DNA was used to search a national cord blood database for a match. Jennifer, with Amelia in tow, wasted no time in hitting the road when a match was found in San Antonio.

The actual transplant was simple, Jennifer says. “It’s no different from getting a blood transfusion—very anti-climatic. After that we stayed in San Antonio for three months to be near Amelia’s transfusion specialists. Amelia was in isolation in the oncology unit for about a month and I was staying in an apartment across the street from the hospital. Brian came to visit every two weeks, and brought Madelyn a couple of times.”

Eventually Amelia could walk outside the isolation room with a mask on to help guard against infection. When she was discharged she stayed in the apartment, still wearing the mask, and went to a hospital clinic every day to be monitored.

It was a fast process, Jennifer says. “From diagnosis on Feb. 14 to July 25, when the transplant was done, there wasn’t much time to think about what to do. There are always side effects and other considerations, but at the time we just had to concentrate on getting her healthy.”

Four years after the transplant, Amelia – who dressed as a mask-wearing surgeon for her first post-transplant Halloween – is doing fine. “After five years you can rest a little easier,” Jennifer says.

Success stories like Amelia’s are the reason for establishing the Cord Blood Bank of Arkansas on July 19, 2011.
“Over 10,000 people received cord blood transplants last year, and it made a difference for all of them,” says Dr. Fox. “Amelia Odle is only one example.”

There are many reasons to need a transplant, including different kinds of cancer, bone marrow failure syndromes and inherited diseases that come from cells made by the bone marrow, she adds.

The blood bank makes it possible for new Arkansas mothers to donate cord blood cells following birth for their family’s use, public use or research through a statewide network that aids in collecting, processing and storing donations at UAMS.

When CBBA reaches 100 usable public blood donations, it will be connected to the National Marrow Donor Program, allowing blood collected from Arkansans to be used in patients around the world.
The number of mothers who want to donate is increasing from one or two a month to one or two a week, says Dr. Fox.

“Everything seems to take longer than I want it to, but other cord blood banks say we are doing well,” she says. “The first goal is to get half of the collections good enough to store for the public bank [not all samples collected yield enough blood to be usable]. The second goal is to improve on that. Nationally about 40 percent of collections are adequate, so we all have room for improvement.”

Dr. Fox says that materials are being developed to educate obstetricians about collections. And there’s a PowerPoint presentation posted on the UAMS telemedicine site for all obstetricians in the state to use.

The Odles are encouraging others to donate to the cord blood bank. “Why not do it?” Jennifer says. “There’s no reason not to; it’s just discarded. And it will be a huge help to someone else. It’s critical to have options.”

“We feel very strongly about this cause and what UAMS is doing to make this available to other families in the same position as we were,” Brian Odle says. “This is science and research and execution in its greatest and most practical form.”

To donate, mothers-to-be can request a kit from CBBA to give to their doctor (to get one call 501-686-6271 by the 34th week of pregnancy or visit CordBloodBankArkansas.org). Following birth, the donated cells will be delivered to UAMS for storage. Identifying information is never exchanged between a cord blood donor and a cord blood transplant recipient.

If cord blood is donated for family use, only that family can use it. Fee for the collection and the first year’s storage is $1,399, with an annual storage fee every year thereafter.

“Donation can save lives,” says Dr. Fox. “Public donation is free of charge and only happens after the birth of a healthy baby. I want to save the lives of all the Amelias!”

For more information on donating, visit CordBloodBankArkansas.org.

EVENT:

A fundraising luncheon for Cord Blood Bank of Arkansas, hosted by First Lady Ginger Beebe, will be held from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. July 10 at the Governor’s Mansion, 1800 Center St., Little Rock.

State Senator Johnny Key and Representative Jon Woods will be honored for their work in getting legislation passed for the development of the CBBA. Tickets are $60; tables are $1,500. To purchase tickets, call 686-8957.

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