A stem cell transplant is a lifesaving treatment option that provides healthy stem cells for patients with blood cancers and other diseases. In the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, one of the largest such programs in the world, specialists perform more than 550 transplants each year. The Program has grown substantially over the past few decades.
“A lot has changed since we started our program in 1972,” explains Dr. Joseph Antin, Chief and Program Director for the Stem Cell Transplantation Program. “Advances in technology and our increasing understanding of the underlying biology of the diseases that we treat are enabling us to provide this therapy in cases that we never dreamed possible when we first started offering stem cell transplantation over 40 years ago.”
In the early days of stem cell transplantation, the only acceptable donor was a matched sibling; the upper age limit for stem cell transplantation was 35; and there were fewer diseases treated with this therapy. These restrictions limited the number of transplants in the Program to 20 to 30 a year. Today, specialists in the Program can perform transplantation using stem cells from related donors, including family members that are half matched (called haploidentical donors), unrelated donors, and umbilical cord blood – pulling from a global registry of millions of donors. The average age of transplant recipients in the Program today has increased to 55 to 60 years of age, and stem cell transplants are being performed in patients up to 75 years of age.
Advances also have been made in reducing the side effects of stem cell transplantation. Examples include using different conditioning intensities (treatment that destroys diseased cells before the transplant) and newer medications that prevent or better control graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which occurs when donor immune cells attack healthy patient cells and tissues.