Miracle of Medicine

What would you do if you found out you only had five days to live? It would probably change your outlook on life immediately. It definitely did for one man, who was diagnosed with a fatal form of leukemia. Now, five years later, he's lived to tell the story about his miracle of medicine.

"Up until that point, things were great," says Eric Drew.

Drew had it all: a modeling career, a home in Europe and a new girlfriend. He was in the prime of his life. Until one fateful day in 2002, when everything changed.

"Just like that, my life was over," he recalls.

Drew was diagnosed with stage 4 acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. Doctors said his bone marrow was 100% cancerous.

Drew vividly remembers the conversation. "He said, 'Look, if you don't check in to Stanford Medical Center tomorrow morning, you will not live the next four or five days. What do you do with the last few hours of your life?"

But Drew was one of the lucky ones. After several weeks in the hospital, he went into remission. But no amount of radiation or chemo could cure him. Drew needed a transplant.

"After several months of raising money," he explains, "It became very clear that I wasn't going to find a match."

With more than 10 million people on the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, there was still not one match. Doctors said there was nothing else they could do.

"I felt victimized," he remembers, "How can they just send me home without going over any options or anything else?"

He pauses and adds with a determined smile, "It wasn't good enough for me."

Drew began to research on his own, and he came across an experimental transplant using stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

"Cord blood banking over the last couple of years has really come into being, mainly because of the many indications that it has in terms of the different diseases it has the capability of treating," explains Dr. Suzanne Welsch, UW OB/GYN.

Dr. Welsch educates her patients about the option of cord blood banking, which is done right after delivery.

"It is blood that is otherwise discarded at the time of birth," says Dr. Welsch, "There's no pain involved to the baby or the mother. It's a very simple system for us to do as providers."

Welsch also banked the cells of both her sons because of a family history of leukemias.

"It became a little bit of a security blanket for me and my family," she willingly admits, "And I have 15 nieces and nephews who could potentially use the blood if there was any disease they had that could utilize it."

Current research shows as many as 40 diseases are now treatable with cord blood. Most of them are leukemias, anemias and immune and metabolic disorders.

Chris Stump, Senior Director of Sales and Training at ViaCord, a division of ViaCell, says, "The National Institutes of Health have more than 200 clinical studies currently being funded for using umbilical cord blood to treat diseases, so the future is very bright for future cord blood utilization to help patients."

There are two banking options: public and private. The public system is free, but you relinquish all rights to your donation. The private system costs anywhere from $1600 to $2000 initially, with an annual storage fee of about $100, but the donation is yours to use as you wish.

That's one reason why Dr. Norman Fost, Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the UW Program in Bioethics, criticizes private banking.

"Poor people can't afford this, people of even moderate means," says Dr. Fost, "To spend several thousand dollars on something that you will almost certainly never use is just something that most families can't consider."

Fost also criticizes what he calls misleading marketing statements made by commercial companies.

"The suggestions are made that even if your son or daughter doesn't get one of these diseases, there's still a child 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now that may have a disease that it can be useful for," he explains, "And that's even more of a sketchy proposition."

But ViaCord, which has one of the two private FDA approved collection and processing systems in the United States, disagrees.

"All the data that we give to parents as to the likelihood of use are from reputable studies that have been published and peer reviewed," says Stump.

Still, UW does not mandate that doctors educate patients about cord blood banking.

That's why Drew now travels the country. He's hoping to raise awareness of his miracle of medicine.

"It was the hardest decision of my life," recalls Drew.

On July 23, 2004 Drew was the first adult with ALL in the U.S. to undergo a cord blood stem cell transplant. Since he had to purchase cords from a public bank and an unknown donor, his body rejected them.

"The chances of surviving a cord blood stem cell transplant are 3 times greater when using a related source of cells as opposed to an unrelated source," explains Drew, "For me, it was horrible. 2 days after the transplant I hit a fever of 106.8, my skin boiled. Because of that reaction, they had to give me massive doses of cortisonal steroids, and that has caused all of the bones in my legs to die."

Drew is in the process of having all of his joints replaced, one by one. But he says it was all worth it, because he is alive.

"I sit before you now with the blood of a baby girl," he says with a smile.

Because Drew was given a second chance at life, he developed the Eric Drew Foundation to help others who are dying and running out of time, as he was just a few years ago.

"Now it's very clear to me that there was a reason I was one of the few that did survive," says Drew, "It's a blessing for me to go out and help thousands of other patients in this country and around the world to get the treatments they need."

The medical world continues to debate the ethics surrounding commercial cord blood banking.

To read a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which discourages private banking, log on to:
http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/jan07cordblood.htm

To read an article in Science Daily, which quotes a study that says we shouldn't discount cord blood stem cells for therapies, log on to:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070607223703.htm

For more information on private banking, log on to:
http://www.viacord.com/

For more information on the Eric Drew Foundation, log on to:
www.drewfoundation.org

UPDATE: Cord Blood Registry, another private bank, received FDA clearance of its stem cell processing system this fall. For more information, log on to: www.cordblood.com.


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