Stem cell surgery saved Waynesboro girl’s life

Stem cell surgery saved Waynesboro girl’s life

By IRIS HERSH Staff writer

Stem cell transplants have been used since the 1970s to save the lives of cancer victims and children with inherited disorders of the immune systems.

One fortunate 3-year old in Waynesboro is evidence of the procedure’s success.

Within months of her birth, Brianna Berkey, Waynesboro was diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency disease. At seven months old in June 2007, she was failing to gain weight normally and was developing severe pneumonia. Her symptoms included a cough, poor appetite and lack of growth. Her immune system simply lacked the ability to fight infections.

“Brianna’s immune disease diagnosis was very hard to deal with,” said her mother, Linda Medina.

For three months, Brianna was a patient at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Children’s Hospital in Hershey.

“Brianna first received chemotherapy to knock down abnormal cells to make space for the healthy cells, said Brianna’s physician Dr. Ken Lucas, director of the pediatric stem cell transplant program at the children’s hospital and the surgeon who performed the stem cell transplant. “In her situation the immune deficiency was a genetic problem.”

Following her chemotherapy regimen, healthy cells were injected into Brianna’s blood stream through an intravenous line.

“The cells know where to go,” Lucas said.

Stem cell donors are difficult to find, the doctor said. White blood cell proteins found on the surface of cells have to match. If they don’t, rejection of

the transplant can occur. A complication known as graft versus host disease — in which the new cells fight the body — can also occur.

The success rate for transplants in pediatric immune deficiency disease patients is greater than 90 percent, Lucas said, which is a higher percentage than the success rates for pediatric patients with high-risk cancers such as leukemia and in adults with leukemia and lymphoma. In pediatric cancer patients, success can be as high as 70 percent, depending on the status of the disease in a patient, she said.

“Outcomes from stem cell transplants have gotten better since we have an expanded pool of donors,” said Lucas, adding that one in four stem cell transplants are from related donors.

Many other donors are matched through the National Marrow Donor Program, which also coordinates (umbilical) cord blood registries.

Cord blood, he continued, is collected from the placenta of many newborns birthed at medical centers that also serve as collection centers, both in the United States and other countries.

Bone marrow comes from adult donors.

With stem cell transplants, people can expect to live a normal life span, Lucas said. Since the transplant, Brianna has become a healthy girl who is right on track developmentally, said her mother.

“Now Brianna can lead a normal life and be in a daycare center with other children while I am at work.”

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Iris Hersh may be reached at 262-4757 or ihersh@publicopinionnews.com.

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