'Treatment with stem cells let my daughter live'

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The Independent Online

Helen Connors has a simple reaction to the results of one of modern science's most revolutionary advances. Her young daughter owes her life to a few frozen blood cells extracted from the umbilical cord of a baby who died at birth.

Helen Connors has a simple reaction to the results of one of modern science's most revolutionary advances. Her young daughter owes her life to a few frozen blood cells extracted from the umbilical cord of a baby who died at birth.

Bridget Connors faced a painfully short life inside a sterile bubble in a hospital ward. Born without her body's natural defences against infection, she would have had a year to live at most were it not for a pioneering treatment developed by Andrew Cant, a consultant paediatrician at Newcastle General Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Bridget, now eight months old, is living in good health with her parents, Helen and Andy, in Newbridge, Co Kildare. She is one of four children suffering from severe combined immune deficiencies (Scid) to have benefited from the treatment.

Transplanted stem cells, taken from the umbilical cord of an accurately cross-matched donor, replicate in the patient's body. The transplanted cells shed "daughter" cells, which can develop into the specialised white blood cells that provide the body's defence against infection. In Bridget's case, they repopulated her bone marrow.

At present, the rules bar Dr Cant from using embryos. But using cells from babies limits the types of tissue they can develop into. Harvesting less developed stem cells from embryos theoretically means they could develop into 200 to 300 specialised cells or organs.

There are strong ethical and moral objections from religious leaders about this process. But another family, living in Burton upon Trent, shares Mrs Connors's belief that preserving a life justifies the procedure.

Ibrahim and Isbat, originally from Pakistan, have two children with Scid. Their first daughter, Maryam, spent 11 months in the Newcastle General in 1997, fighting for her life after a transplant of her father's bone marrow. "It was really horrific," said Ibrahim.

Maryam's illness was diagnosed as Isbat carried their second child, raising the terrible prospect that the next child would inherit the genetically transmitted defect. Aneesa was born free from the condition, but as a precaution, stem cells were taken from her and frozen.

They were soon needed. In May last year, a son, Habeeb, was born with the condition. His treatment lasted four weeks, required far fewer drugs and caused far less physical and emotional pain than Maryam's.

"The way I see it is that anything that can be done sothat after a child has beenborn it survives, is a bonus," Ibrahim said.

All three children are alive and well.

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