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Boy receives first cord blood transplant for sickle cell anemia

Keone is the first sickle cell patient to receive a cord blood transfusion from an unrelated donor.  
December 14, 1998
Web posted at: 2:09 p.m. EDT (1809 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Researchers say children who might have died from inherited immune disorders or leukemia may be cured with umbilical cord blood transplants. Now scientists at Emory University Hospital have done the world's first "unrelated donor" cord blood transplant in a child with sickle cell anemia.

Keone Penn of Snellville, Georgia, looks like a typical 12-year-old. But he has a severe cased of sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder where red blood cells are abnormally shaped.

"He had a stroke when he was 5 and he's been getting chronic blood transfusions ever since he had the stroke -- lots of fevers, infections, seizures," said his mother, Leslie Penn.

CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports
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But blood transfusions no longer help, and Penn lives with constant pain and the risk of dying from another stroke.

I think about it a lot; it travels through my mind every day," he said. "I can't let it travel through my mind every day without saying, 'Lord, I need your help.'"

Experimental treatment is the next line of defense. Doctors at Emory said Penn is the first to receive unrelated cord blood in a transplant.

Cord blood comes from the umbilical cord after childbirth. The blood's cells can become any kind of blood cell.

The hope is Keone will end up with a cure -- a new, healthy blood-making factory.

"We are very optimistic about this, cautiously so," said Emory hematologist-oncologist Dr. Andrew Yeager. "Cord blood transplants from unrelated donors again have been done in a number of things."

Researchers have cured sickle cell before using bone marrow transplants. The donors were related brothers and sisters. However, most of the time, even siblings are not a good enough match.

While a very close match is needed for bone marrow transplants to work, a perfect match is not necessary with cord blood.

"Umbilical cord blood comes from newborn babies that have an underdeveloped immune system so the immune complications of the transplant are theoretically and it looks like possibly-- in actual fact-- reduced," said Dr. Eliel Bayer of the Children's National Medical Center.

Still, there is the risk of complications such as infection.

It will be 6 months to a year before doctors will know if Penn is cured of sickle cell anemia.

If the treatment works, Penn said he has plans for the future. "I want to play football afterwards."

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