Researchers say some leukemia patients can dramatically improve their survival rates if they have stem cell transplants. In fact, the researchers say the use of stem cells may result in a new standard treatment.
For two weeks Randall Burnham thought he had the flu. Instead it was a type of deadly leukemia.
"When I was diagnosed, I was actually so sick I didn't really understand what was going on," he said. "Afterwards, they said that I was within a couple of days of dying."
Burnham was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia - a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that spreads so rapidly that unless a patient gets treatment, he usually has only a matter of months to live. Chemotherapy is used to put the patient into remission.
"In other words, the bone marrow and the blood have been restored to a normal looking state," said Dr. John Koreth of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dr. Koreth says chemotherapy does not kill every cancer cell. In some patients, the cancer recurs.
BURNHAM: "I noticed that a couple of days ago that I don't feel as achey as I did before."
Dr. Koreth says a simple chromosome test shows whether the patient has a good, poor or intermediate chance of the acute myeloid leukemia returning.
For those with a good prognosis, chemotherapy alone may suffice. For patients with a poor outlook, chemotherapy plus a blood stem cell transplant from a donor is the usual treatment.
But there was no consensus on how to treat patients in the intermediate group who have almost a 50 percent chance of recurence.
"For intermediate risk, even the experts were stumped," he added.
Dr. Koreth and other researchers analyzed data from two dozen studies. They noticed that healthy stem cells from a compatible donor helped boost the survival rates of patients who had intermediate risk. Randall Burnham found a good match.
"I had a sister with a perfect match to me," explained Mr. Burnham. "And then a brother and another sister with slight deviations, so they took the sister that had the perfect match. So she was the one who donated the stem cells to me."
Burnham has been in remission for two years after having the transplant. Dr. Koreth says the study may provide clear direction on how intermediate risk patients should be treated.
There are risks associated with the transplant procedure. Burnham takes extra precautions, such as wearing gloves and a mask, because he is more susceptible to infections and other side effects. But Dr. Koreth says the treatment's benefits outweigh the risks.
The study has been published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.