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Leukaemia sufferer given bone marrow transplant using umbilical cord blood

A nurse with leukaemia has become the first adult in Britain to undergo a pioneering transplant of baby's umbilical blood, which could offer hope to thousands of sufferers without a bone marrow match.

Stephen Knox, 31, who had been given just months to live, is now recovering well after undergoing the life-saving bone marrow transplant using the cord blood.

The procedure developed by a transplant team in Newcastle, uses stem cell blood from discarded placentas and umbilical cords. While it has been used in the past to treat children with blood disorders, this was the first time an adult had undergone the treatment.

"It is a strange feeling that there is a little boy or girl somewhere out there who has saved my life," Mr Knox said yesterday. "Wherever that child is now and whatever he or she does in life I will always be grateful to them. The transplant has given me a new lease of life. I feel well and I'm confident about the future."

Until now the small quantities of blood collected could not be used for adults because they yield only a few drops of the vital stem cells which, when transplanted, grow into new bone marrow.

But Professor Stephen Proctor and his transplant team, based at Newcastle Hospital Trust's Haematology Unit, discovered a way to bulk up the stem cells, which do match the sufferer's own tissue type, by using cord blood, which does not.

Mr Knox, of Middleton-St-George, Co Durham, who was first diagnosed with leukaemia in November 2000, agreed to the operation after chemotherapy sessions failed. "The stem cells from the baby's umbilical cord have succeeded where medicine was failing," he said.

"The choice to have the transplant wasn't really a choice at all, it was more like my last chance. It sounded strange when it was first explained to me, the idea of my life being saved by a newborn baby seemed incredible."

Mr Knox, a community nurse who works with disabled adults, was given treatment to kill off his own bone marrow in February and then injected with the mixed cord blood which started to grow into new bone marrow in 15 days.

He recently underwent tests which show the matching cord blood has grown into new bone marrow. The transplant has changed his blood type from A to the baby's blood type, O, and he has now inherited the baby's immune system.

"The transplant has worked much better than we expected," Professor Proctor said. "This procedure will provide hope for one third of people with leukaemia, who cannot be treated with a bone marrow transplant from a member of their family or a person on the bone marrow donor list."