By Diego de la Garza and Kathleen O'Neil
At an age when kids usually worry about school dances or their next algebra test, Julian Yarbrough was pondering bigger issues. Then only 14 years old, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and desperately needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.
Three years later, the aspiring musician from Oceanside, Calif., is in remission and looking ahead to a full life, thanks to a surprising procedure. Even though the international bone marrow registry turned up no matching donors for him, Yarbrough was able to undergo successful transplantation at City of Hope — using stem cells harvested from donated umbilical cords.
Usually discarded as medical waste after a birth, umbilical cord blood can supply donor hematopoietic stem cells for life-saving transplantation. They hold so much potential for survival that City of Hope physicians have paired with a California legislator to support creating a pilot statewide system to harvest and bank cord blood for public use.
Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., director of pediatric bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope, recently testified before a California Assembly committee to back the cord-blood banking bill authored by Assemblymember Anthony Portantino.
“This effort lays the ground work for the active collection and storage of a diverse supply of umbilical cord blood for use in transplantation and research,” said Rosenthal, associate professor of pediatrics. “We stand to save more lives, especially in times of great need and for patients who have difficulty finding matching donors.”
Physicians transplant hematopoietic stem cells — cells that form mature blood cells and usually reside in the bone marrow — to treat a variety of cancers of the blood. Even though a patient’s brothers and sisters represent the best chance of finding matching stem cells, only about a quarter of patients have siblings that match.
Cord blood is more likely than bone marrow to yield matches from unrelated donors, making it a valuable option.
“Umbilical cord blood, which 90 percent of the time gets thrown in the trash, cures 70 diseases,” Portantino said.
Portantino’s push to collect cells from umbilical cords started in 1996 when a neighbor’s 6-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. No marrow match could be found, but the boy received cells from donated cord blood, which saved his life. That motivated Portantino to donate the cord blood from his own child’s birth five years later — but he found it tough to do. Only two hospitals in California collect umbilical cord blood for public use, he said.
Undaunted, he decided to try to make donating easier.
Rosenthal, meanwhile, has provided key information to lawmakers and has reviewed the legislation and suggested ways to strengthen it.
“For thousands of years we’ve tossed cord blood away,” explained Rosenthal. “The assemblymember understands that from this point on, we can’t afford to be so careless.”
No one understands cord blood’s importance as deeply as survivors such as Yarbrough, though. After his transplant and long recovery, he was able to enter El Camino High School and begin living a normal life. He is now back at school full time and he and his brother frequently perform Christian rap in churches. They’re also putting together their first CD.
The identities of his infant donors and their parents are kept anonymous, but he thanks them for their gift. Said Yarbrough: “I hope all parents would consider donating their umbilical cords, because it really does help.”