Christian Beattie is a competitive cyclist who, over the course of a long career, has raced with the sport’s biggest names and in the world’s most prestigious events. But last year, the 39-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., went from winning races to feeling “not right.”
Beattie was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. His best hope for a cure was a bone marrow transplant, the Nobel Prize-winning treatment developed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
But, like 40 percent of all transplant candidates, Beattie was unable to find a well-matched donor with enough shared biological characteristics to make a transplant viable. After exhausting all other treatment options, a doctor in Kansas gave him slim odds of reaching the age of 40.
Then a friend showed him an article about Dr. Colleen Delaney’s research at the Hutchinson Center. Her efforts were a ray of hope to Beattie, one of the 16,000 people each year who can’t find a donor match within their families or through international bone marrow registries. For most ethnic minorities and people of mixed heritage, the chances of finding a donor are even lower. “When all else failed, I knew I had to get to Seattle,” he said.
He did just that and is now reaping the benefits of Delaney’s lifesaving breakthrough.
Delaney is pioneering research focused on the healing powers of umbilical cord blood transplants. Collected from the discarded placenta after a baby is born, cord blood is rich in helpful cells that have the potential to cure cancer.
“It really is the ultimate recycled product,” Delaney said. “You can give life to a child and by reusing what is normally thrown away, save the life of someone else.”
Because the cells found in cord blood are less developed than adult blood stem cells, they don’t need to be as closely matched to a patient, allowing a match for nearly all patients. But cord blood transplantation has one problem—a single unit contains so few cells that a patient is vulnerable to infection for a long time before the transplant can rebuild the immune system. This has made it particularly difficult to transplant adult patients with cord blood.
Delaney’s research has broken through this barrier by developing a way to multiply the tiny number of umbilical cord blood cells 200-fold in the laboratory so they can be transplanted in adults.
Beattie received an expanded cord blood transplant and left the hospital in just 10 days, with the underpinnings of a healthy immune system—far faster than with a traditional transplant and with few side effects.
Now, Delaney and colleagues are taking their work further, developing an approach to cord blood transplants which doesn’t require patient-donor matching. Under this new study, she is working to develop expanded, “off-the-shelf” cord blood units that can be frozen and made available to all patients.
“I want people to know everyone has a match,” said Beattie, whose plans now include cycling into his 40s and beyond.