Thank you for saving our lives! 

11/05/2012 00:00 

Patients who had pioneering transplants for blood cell cancers like lymphoma and leukaemia returned to the hospital trust that saved their lives to say ‘thank you’.

The stem cell reunion group

The stem cell reunion group

Around 20 patients and their families visited the new £100 million University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre which opened just one month ago.

Among the group were some of the first ever patients with leukaemia and lymphoma to be successfully treated in the UK in the early 1980s with autologous stem cell transplantation. At this time, the prognosis was poor for the vast majority of patients with blood cell cancers (leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma) who had relapsed or had not responded to initial treatment. Only a small percentage of these patients survived.

But the Department of Haematology at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) was at the forefront of developing techniques to administer high doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to these patients safely in an attempt to eradicate the disease. This involved collecting stem cells from the bone marrows of patients and freezing them to protect them.
The patients were then given the high doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and the stem cells were defrosted and returned to the patient. The re-infused stem cells allowed the patients to produce normal blood cells in a matter of weeks. Patients only had low blood counts for a relatively short time, increasing the chances of a successful recovery from the high dose therapy.

Forty to 50 per cent of the patients treated with these stem cell transplants survived and the results today are better still.

The celebratory event was the brainchild of Dr Gregory Tanner who was the second patient with a haematological malignancy to receive an autologous stem cell transplant in the programme which started over 30 years ago. It gave him the opportunity, along with other long-term survivors, to say thank you to the transplant team and to see the new Cancer Centre and UCL Cancer Institute which embody the enormous commitment of UCLH and UCL to the cure of cancer.

Prof Anthony Goldstone, consultant haematologist; Prof David Linch, consultant haematologist; Dr Gregory Tanner and Macmillan Ca

Prof Anthony Goldstone, consultant haematologist; Prof David Linch, consultant haematologist; Dr Gregory Tanner and Macmillan Cancer Support chief medical officer Prof Jane Maher

Dr Tanner said he owed not only his life to the team which treated him at UCLH, but his career. “I decided I wanted to be in medicine after recovering from leukaemia and am now a GP with a special interest in communication between cancer patients and doctors. I always say they say they saved my life and threw in a career!’

Dr Tanner was 24 when he was diagnosed in 1980 and went on to train in the haematology department at University College Hospital which helped treat him. “If I hadn’t been referred to Professor Anthony Goldstone [haematology consultant] at UCLH, I would have been dead now,” added Dr Tanner, who worked with Department of Health cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards on the primary care elements of the first National Cancer Plan.

The technique has now developed with doctors and nurses able to take stem cells directly from the blood stream instead of the bone marrow, eliminating the need for patients to have a general anaesthetic and reducing the time to recovery of the blood counts and reducing the length of stay in hospital.

Stem cell transplants at the new University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre are no longer treated as inpatients but ‘ambulatory care’ patients. This means they are only admitted to a hospital bed if they have any complications or pick up an infection and can spend the rest of the time in a nearby hotel.

Consultant haematologist Professor David Linch, was involved in the development of the transplant programme, said: “The principles of stem cell transplantation therapy are the same today as 30 years ago but the supportive care is much better now – there is better understanding of the infections associated with the treatment and there are better antibiotics available. Today, stem cells are taken directly from the blood instead of the bone marrow and this results in more rapid recovery.  Growth factors further accelerate the recovery and patients are in hospital for a shorter period of time – a lot of them will spend their first week or so in a hotel rather than a hospital bed.”


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