Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, making up almost one out of three cancers in young people. And while it almost always resulted in death until fairly recently, today leukaemia can usually be successfully treated at specialised centres," says Dr Jackie Thomson, a clinical haematologist and a leading South African expert in the treatment of the disease, who was speaking during the Bone Marrow Stem Cell Donation and Leukaemia Awareness period which runs from 15 August to 15 October 2014.
Dr Thomson, who heads up the Alberts Cellular Therapy (ACT) unit at Netcare Pretoria East Hospital, is a clinician who has spent much of her career quietly working towards making the best possible treatments available to those unfortunate enough to develop blood diseases such as leukaemia. While leukaemia is not only confined to children, it is the young patients especially who tug at Dr Thomson's heartstrings, and have helped to motivate her and her team to establish one of the most sophisticated treatment facilities of its kind in Africa.
"Unbelievable advances have been made with regard to the treatment of leukaemia in recent years. Every leukaemia case is different, as is the prognosis for each patient. However, new drugs and therapies are now available to fight the disease and gene testing is enabling doctors to accurately target each individual patient's treatment. If patients are treated by experts in specialised facilities, using highly advanced technology and evidence based treatment protocols, the success rate is very high," asserts Dr Thomson.
By way of example, she says that in children with leukaemia under the age of 15 who are treated at specialist facilities such as ACT, the five-year survival rate is 75%. Significantly, if the child has been cancer free for more than five years, as the majority are, the disease does not usually return. In other words, childhood leukaemia is often completely curable today.
Bone marrow transplantation, which helps remove cancer cells from a patient's system, is usually used as part of the treatment protocol in leukaemia cases. It is also sometimes used for other blood disorders and metabolic problems. Transplantation involves taking stem cells from a person's bone marrow and transplanting them into the patient after they have had intensive chemo- or radiotherapy. While it is life saving, this high intensity therapy is also associated with a number of risks.
"The bone marrow is damaged during the treatment process and for a time it is not able to make blood cells anymore. This makes patients very susceptible to infection, one of the most important risks they will face during treatment, and they therefore have to be protected from infections. Any treatment programme has a responsibility to ensure that therapy is performed as safely as possible and functions to the very highest standards," Dr Thomson explains.
The Alberts Cellular Therapy unit is the haematological branch of Alberts, Bouwer, Jordaan (ABJ) Oncologists, based at Netcare Pretoria East Hospital and specialises in bone marrow transplantation. The facility recently achieved accreditation by JACIE, the Joint Accreditation Committee of the European Bone Marrow Registry and the International Standards for Stem Cell Therapy, for meeting its rigorous standards, and is the first centre of its kind on the continent to achieve this sought after accolade. According to Dr Thomson, the clinical facility, collection facility and processing laboratories were all evaluated separately and accredited both individually and as part of the total integrated programme offered by ACT.
Dr Thomson explains that the one of the major advantages of the JACIE system, which falls under the auspices of the European Blood and Marrow Transplant group, is that it uses strict protocols to ensure the systematic control and coordination of the entire transplant process. According to Dr Thomson, participation in the programme has been shown to improve patient survival by a significant 10%.
Dr Thomson says that the majority of transplants undertaken at the unit are with stem cells from unrelated donors, but a few are from relatives. She says that the odds of finding a donor are approximately one in 100 000. Most of the stem cell transplants are therefore performed using bone marrow from overseas donors. "There is a great need for bone marrow donors and South Africans are encouraged to join the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) and donate bone marrow," she concludes.
Issued by : Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact : Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Beswick and Jillian Penaluna
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